After Arizona’s 2011-12 season crashed in the first round of the NIT, coach Sean Miller mixed in a Top 5 recruiting class with a core of promising returners and confident grad transfer Mark Lyons.
The new gang immediately received a break. It was able to hold 10 full summertime practices and take an exhibition trip to the Bahamas, an exception the NCAA allows teams every four years.
Then the Wildcats took advantage of it by winning their first 14 games of the 2012-13 season, capturing the Diamond Head Classic title and barging into Pac-12 play undefeated.
“The one thing I remember was it really helped the camaraderie,” Miller said Tuesday, when discussing the Wildcats’ upcoming trip to Spain. “It really helped the team get to know each other and those who had never been in college learned the value of practice. … So maybe it allowed us to get off to a good start.”
However, by mid-January, those Wildcats stopped ascending. They wound up going 12-6 in Pac-12 play, dropped 4 of 7 games in a late-season stretch and lost to UCLA in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament before winning a pair of NCAA tournament games against Belmont and Harvard.
While it’s difficult to say whether the previous summertime play cost the 2012-13 Wildcats some energy down the stretch, the seasons after Arizona offseason trips have often disappointed.
Under former UA coach Lute Olson, the defending national champs lost in the 1998 Elite Eight after a trip to Australia, the preseason No. 1 Wildcats lost in the 2003 Elite Eight after going Down Under again and Olson’s last team lost in the first round of the 2007 tournament following a quickie Labor Day jaunt to British Columbia.
So if there’s a danger that exhibition trips can turn a sixth-month season into an eight-month marathon, Miller is taking precautions.
The UA coach said only one of his team’s full-length practices has approached two hours, while he’s planning only one practice and three games while actually in Spain plus a lot of downtime and sightseeing.
“It’s a long season ahead of us and when we reflect back on this trip, we want it to be all positives,” Miller said. “Certainly, no negatives.”
The entire Arizona roster is making the trip except walk-on Tyler Trillo, who is at home in Connecticut working an internship. Miller says he doesn’t expect any of his players on the floor more than 22 minutes a game.
“We have a group of 16 or 17, so it’s not like we’re trying to practice with seven or eight players,” said Miller, who was forced to do pretty much that early last season. “We’ve done the same things we’d normally do in early October or late September, but it’s just the (reduced) length of time.
“And prior to these 10 practices we didn’t change the script this summer. Our players pretty much went about what they would normally do except for these last 11 days.”
As it turns out, the only real drawback for the Wildcats may be that they won’t get to return home between the end of the second summer session and beginning of the fall semester as they normally do, since they will return from Spain just two days before the fall semester begins.
Miller said he’s hoping the players will get a short break to go home early in the fall before full practices begin.
But none of that sounded like an issue with the four players UA made available for comment Thursday. Dusan Ristic, Allonzo Trier, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Rawle Alkins said they were excited for practices and the trip ahead.
“I’m happy to get in here because the earlier we (practice), the better we are going to get down the stretch,” Alkins said. “I’m happy that we’re going to Spain this year and get a chance to play against each other. We’ll have a connection and a chemistry faster than you would get in October.”
Praise for Ayton
While Miller has been working in seven newcomers in practice this summer, it isn’t a surprise who is standing out.
Literally, and figuratively.
“The headliner is DeAndre” Ayton, Miller said. “I have never seen anybody like him at his age. I don’t think I will again. It’s just because he’s so physically imposing. Right now, he’s a little over 7 feet tall, now over 260 pounds. He’s as strong and as gifted running for somebody that size that I’ve worked with and he loves the game.”
UA’s returnees also raved about Ayton, UA’s highest-rated recruit ever.
“On the court, he’s a beast,” Alkins said. “He’s a legit 7-footer. He can shoot from the outside, and he’s a tough guy. I think he’s going to be a huge presence from the rim. He’s going to defend and block a lot of shots.”
Akot as backup PG?
One of the other bigger developments so far is not only that freshman Emmanuel Akot is ready physically to play after graduating from high school a year early, but that he’s also ready to play at point guard.
That means UA could throw out drastically different looks at the point by starting the 5-foot-10 Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and having the rangy, 6-7 Akot slide over to back him up.
“I think he’s going to play a lot of point, as he’ll play a lot of other positions, too,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “That’s how versatile he is. … He holds his own and he’s really poised.”
While discussing how all his freshmen have impressed, Miller said he can envision Akot sliding over to point guard, while noting that freshman Alex Barcello will also play there.
“Alex can really shoot the basketball and he’s mature, obviously a very hard worker,” Miller said. “Ditto for (wing) Brandon Randolph — he can shoot the ball. … And Ira Lee is very hard-working, very athletic, somebody who’s a great competitor. Each of those guys in their own right can contribute; they allow our team to have great depth.”
Smith returning to bench
Miller said forward Ray Smith will travel with the Wildcats to Spain and remain with the team in some capacity next season, which will be his first full season as a nonplayer after retiring last November because of a third torn ACL.
Having Smith go to Spain “is awesome,” Miller said. “I think it says a lot about our basketball program and our university that we’re able to bring him along. It’s a great experience for Ray and it’s one he deserves.”
Miller said Smith remains mostly focused on studies and may do some managerial duties, with the potential to travel with the team occasionally.