SAN FRANCISCO — The way the college basketball predictions rolled in Thursday for the Arizona Wildcats, you might as well just skip all the way to April.
Forget about the potentially difficult trips to Northern and Southern California. The showdown at new rival Colorado. The sold-out madness of conference games at McKale Center.
Just pencil the Wildcats in at No. 1 in the Pac-12, as they were overwhelmingly done in the conference’s media poll released Thursday, and No. 5 nationally, as they were when the USA Today coaches Top 25 poll was released earlier in the day.
Right, Sean Miller?
Not really. Not at all.
The Arizona Wildcats coach indicated he would just like to get out of his October practices with a game-ready, cohesive bunch instead of a talented group of mostly newcomers that is dealing with key veteran losses in Solomon Hill, Mark Lyons and Kevin Parrom.
Especially with a road game at San Diego State looming in less than a month, plus a potential showdown with Duke after Thanksgiving, then what could be a crazy tough road game at Michigan in December.
“We’re not experienced enough to be head and shoulders above the field,” Miller said at the Pac-12 media day podium. “We have a lot of parts, and if we have some health on our side and some good fortune, we might be able to get there and be a special team down the road.
“We lost a tremendous amount of talent, but what we really lost is players that have been in big games and been through the long college seasons before.”
Although guard T.J. McConnell and forward Matt Korcheck were redshirts on campus last season, the Wildcats actually have more new scholarship players on the court this season (six) than returnees (five). And, Miller said after his podium interviews, several of the returnees are transitioning to different duties.
Junior guard Nick Johnson, for example, goes from a defensive stopper and combo guard to a guy who will be needed significantly for defense, shooting and leadership. Forward Brandon Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski are expected to have more prominent offensive roles inside.
And Miller says even guard Gabe York, who played in just 15 of 35 games last season, could have a big role this time around.
“Everybody, it seems like, is returning to a different role,” Miller said. “Nick might be back as a junior but the role he will have on this year’s team will be different — we’re going to ask him to shoot the ball more. Having freshmen speaks for itself: When I say ‘3-on-2 closeout’ — they just don’t go into the drill, they wait and see where the other guys go.”
Of course, though, exactly none of Miller’s Pac-12 peers are likely to feel too badly about all of that.
One reason? Their freshmen are not your everyday freshmen.
“Aaron Gordon is going to be pretty good,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said.
“Obviously Aaron Gordon at Arizona is going to have a big impact,” Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said.
“Yep. Yep. Aaron is a special player,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said, when told Gordon had been frequently mentioned as a top newcomer by other coaches. “He’s one of the rare, rare young kids who come into college extremely talented and yet has a motor.”
“He’s almost like a senior in college, because he’s focused, he’s very intelligent and he’s really a fantastic person,” Miller said of Gordon. “To the core, he’s really about the right things.”
And Gordon is only one member of a powerhouse recruiting class that also includes forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, expected to be an immediate defensive weapon on the wing, and shooter Elliott Pitts. (Not to mention Kansas transfer Zach Peters, who may become medically cleared in the next two weeks.)
But there’s also this: Arizona is expected to be followed in the Pac-12 race by five or six teams that even Miller says could finish first or second. While the Wildcats received 21 of 23 first-place votes in the Pac-12 survey of media members who regularly cover the league, UCLA, Colorado, Oregon and California were voted into a tight cluster below them.
Then there’s Stanford, voted sixth, that returns nearly its entire team, and ASU, voted seventh, with the conference’s potential MVP in guard Jahii Carson and an improved supporting cast.
There’s no lack of confidence around the rest of the conference, either. Not, at least, the way Colorado guard Spencer Dinwiddie expressed it.
“I’d probably say we don’t view Arizona as the top, the cream, and everybody else is the rest,” Dinwiddie said. “We view ourselves as the cream and everyone else can fight for the other spots. That’s how we’re going to approach the season, and we’re going to try to win all of our games.”
Including that Feb. 22 game against Arizona in Boulder, Colo., the one that could go a long way toward determining the conference title.
So maybe there is some reason to let the Wildcats play out the season. The Wildcats may indeed become a Top 5 team, but there’s a process about them that could be a lot more interesting than the hype around them might have you believe.
“We don’t practice like all these guys know what they want to do,” Miller said. “I do think six weeks from now, two months from now, if we remain healthy, we’ll be better than at the beginning. But I worry about some of our early games.”
• Miller said York has returned fully to practice after missing two practices after the Oct. 12 Red-Blue Game because of ankle and hamstring injuries.
• Peters might be 10 to 14 days away from possibly being cleared medically to practice fully after suffering a string of concussions that led to his transfer from Kansas. “We’ve moved at a snail’s pace for all the right reasons, but as we’ve moved slowly, he’s really progressed,” Miller said.
• Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said he’s spoken with Miller and UA administrators since the officiating controversy last spring that led to the resignation of coordinator Ed Rush. “There was a lot of communication, obviously, around what happened,” Scott said. “Sean’s been very engaged with (new coordinator) Bobby Dibler … in having input in our officiating program and really just looking forward.”
Miller said he hadn’t heard of the new NCAA rules that are tougher on defenses with hand-checking and block/charge calls until briefings Thursday. “Emphasizing not fouling is something we do anyway,” he said. “But we probably need to renew our focus here over the next couple of weeks knowing there’s going to be such an emphasis here early in the season.”