On the eve of their first official practice of the season, the Arizona Wildcats confirmed they are still trying to add another key player to their active roster.
Kentucky transfer Jemarl Baker said Tuesday that he has applied to the NCAA for a redshirt waiver, a move that conceivably would allow the Wildcats to better replace injured guard Brandon Williams this season. Baker declined to specify the reasons behind his appeal, but his two seasons with Kentucky were marred by knee injuries.
“Regardless of what happened in the past, I’m just glad I’m here now, and I don’t really like to talk about it,” Baker said. “I’m glad I’m with this team. I love the players, I love coaching staff, I really do. I’m just looking forward to getting better and going from here.”
During his annual preaseason media day address, UA coach Sean Miller confirmed that Baker and his family were trying to see if the sophomore guard could become immediately eligible. He also declined to provide further detail.
“Jemarl and his family are working towards the possibility of that, and that’s really all I can comment on regarding that,” Miller said. “But if you’d say, ‘is there a possibility that he might be able to play?’ I would say yes. And I think I’ll stop there.”
A Southern California product who once committed to Cal, Baker sat out as a freshman at Kentucky in 2017-18 after undergoing knee surgery and was limited with knee trouble early last season before playing a limited role in 28 games starting in December. He averaged 2.3 points per game and hit 13 of 42 3-pointers while averaging 9.1 minutes per game for Kentucky last season.
Baker said it felt “great” to be fully healthy this season but otherwise declined to detail much about his Kentucky experience.
“I just think it made me stronger mentally,” Baker said. “But other than that, I’m not really here to talk about my experience there. I’m here to talk about being here in Arizona and the players we have here, the coaching staff we have and just working every day to get better.”
Miller: I’m promoting complianceMiller said during Tuesday’s opening address that he would continue to “work as hard as I can to promote and reinforce a culture of compliance.”
Those are the kinds of words Miller may need to defend himself against the NCAA’s head-coach responsibility rule, which states that a head coach is responsible for the actions of direct and indirect reports unless he or she can rebut the presumption of responsibility.
Even if Miller is found without direct wrongdoing in the current NCAA investigation, the NCAA could try to hold him accountable for the actions of imprisoned former assistant coach Book Richardson, who admitted to a federal judge he accepted $20,000 in bribes.
This spring, a federal jury heard recorded tapes of Richardson saying Miller “bought” former UA star Deandre Ayton. Richardson was also caught on tape saying he paid $40,000 to have the academic records of former UA wing Rawle Alkins altered, though that transcript was never shared in court.
As he did last month, Miller declined to comment on the allegations and NCAA investigation.
“As we now begin a new basketball season and any investigation into our program proceeds, I will continue to work as hard as I can to promote and reinforce a culture of compliance as part of our basketball program, just like I have done for the last 10-plus years,” Miller said. “And I’ll do this with the support of a very strong team, alongside of me every step of the way.
“Moving forward, I’m also going to continue to follow our University of Arizona policy of not commenting on any part of any investigation that involves our university.”
Despite surgeries on both shoulders over the last two years, freshman wing Josh Green says he hasn’t thought about the injuries since being cleared last month.
“Honestly, I feel a lot better with them than I did before,” Green said. “I played most of my last high school season with a torn labrum. So this is my first time when I get to come out and really be 100 percent healthy again. I’m looking forward to it.”
Green had surgery on his right shoulder in summer 2018, missing the July evaluation period before his senior season at IMG Academy, then dislocated his left shoulder during the Hoop Summit game last April and had surgery later that month.
Miller said the two setbacks cost Green about nine months of development — “I don’t want to say he’s rusty, but I think the best is yet to come for him,” Miller said — but Green said there was a benefit to sitting on the sidelines for a while.
“I felt it helped me out,” Green said. “It made me realize what I need to work on. I was able to sit back and watch a ton of film for multiple positions, whether it was the one spot or the three spot.
“I watch players like (former NBA player) Richard Hamilton a lot, him coming up on ball screens and off ball screens and (it helps) just being able to read books. It might sound crazy, but I figured that that’s the stuff I needed to work on.”
Time to adjust
The Wildcats will hold their first full practice Wednesday, the first day allowable under NCAA rules because it is six weeks out from their Nov. 6 opener. But they actually have been working out together in limited form since late June.
Once school began last month, Arizona had up to four hours a week to practice together and the Wildcats even held a 24-minute scrimmage on Monday, the same length their Red-Blue scrimmage is likely to be on Friday.
So even though freshman guard Nico Mannion is already well-versed in high-level ball — he played for the Italian national team, in the Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American games, among other experiences — he said he’s expanded his game already since moving to Tucson.
“I think I’ve just developed as a player slowly, getting more comfortable on the floor, getting more chemistry with my teammates,” Mannion said. “It all happens real slowly. But I think we just have a great group of guys, and we all work hard.”
Freshman center Christian Koloko, whom Miller said has been even better than expected, said he’s put on 15 pounds on his 7-foot frame while playing opposite Zeke Nnaji, Stone Gettings, Ira Lee and Chase Jeter in the post.
“It’s been really great for me because they are all different players,” Koloko said. “I’m just trying to take a little something from everyone and make my game better.”
After answering the common preseason question of how much pressure he faces to reach a Final Four by saying he “felt pressure the day I came here and it’s never really left,” Miller was asked if it felt like he’s been at the UA for 10 years.
He was hired in April 2009 as a permanent replacement for Lute Olson after the Wildcats had interim head coaches in 2007-08 and 2008-09.
“It feels like 100 years,” Miller said. “It really, really does. I think I’ve counted maybe 35 changes in the Pac-12 on the football side. ...
“On the basketball side, it’s not easy to be at one place for 10 years, and my family and I are grateful every day that we’re here and looking forward especially to the challenges of the next seven months. We’re going to have plenty, and hopefully we can bring this team together and have a great season.”