No Arizona player this season has been around Sean Miller longer than junior wing Dylan Smith, and he would like to assure everybody of one thing.
“Coach Miller hasn’t changed,” Smith said. “I’ve been here three years and he’s still the same coach.”
Maybe so, but everything has changed around him.
After years of steady progression that resulted in five Pac-12 titles and five second-weekend appearances in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats have been rocked both by early pro departures and an unexpected FBI investigation into college basketball that affected recruiting and led to the dismissal of assistant Book Richardson.
Arizona returns no starters from last season’s league champs, has just 11 scholarship players despite Miller’s spring recruiting scramble and is attempting to mesh a group of sophomore returnees with transfers and highly touted freshman guard Brandon Williams.
They are in almost nobody’s Top 25, have no players listed on major preseason award watch lists, and were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 — a pick that Miller said he found surprisingly high.
“We have a long way to go,” Miller said. “Every team does at this time of year, but in our case I think it’s a little further just because there’s so much wholesale change. It’s something that I have not experienced and it’s kind of like almost taking over a new program.”
Well, not really everyone: It just seems that way. The Wildcats lost all five starters, including No. 1 NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton.
Those five guys were on the floor so often, accounting for 71.6 percent of the total minutes played last season — and that’s factoring in the 12 games that Rawle Alkins missed because of foot issues and the two games Allonzo Trier missed due to suspension.
Transfers Justin Coleman (Samford), Ryan Luther (Pitt) and Chase Jeter (Duke) will take their place, and Miller is hoping his core of returning sophomores can step successfully into bigger roles.
That class includes wing Brandon Randolph and his go-to scoring potential, along with versatile forward Emmanuel Akot, high-motor big man Ira Lee and combo guard Alex Barcello, whom Miller calls the team’s best shooter even though he made just eight 3-pointers (on 26 attempts) all of last season.
“From my first season to the second season, it wasn’t necessarily the new faces that impacted our success — it was more the returning players improving and being much more ready,” Miller said of his 2011 Elite Eight team featuring Derrick Williams and MoMo Jones. “We have several players that are in that boat. Brandon has a lot of talent. He has the ability to make shots and I think he has the chance to be a double figure scorer for us. I can certainly see him making a significant jump from his freshman to his sophomore year.
“Emmanuel is maybe more of the same. He has a different style than Brandon but we can play him at a number of different positions and he may be our team’s best overall passer. … yet he’s almost 6-foot-7 and he’s much bigger and stronger right now than he was a year ago.”
Miller said he’d say the same thing about Lee, who benefited and gained confidence by practicing against Jeter and 7-footers Ayton and Dusan Ristic and Jeter. And while Barcello’s minutes evaporated last season as Trier soaked up minutes at both guard spots, Miller said Barcello was the team’s top shooter in offseason drills.
Of the newcomers, freshman Brandon Williams is expected to be a major factor at both guard spots while the transfers all bring considerable experience, just in different jerseys.
Jeter was a five-star recruit who started his college career at Duke, Luther averaged a double-double before he was lost to a foot stress fracture last season at Pittsburgh, and Coleman is a veteran of high-major play who played two seasons for Alabama before moving to Samford.
“I think we have a lot of talented players, probably a lot more than people think,” Akot said. “We’re just excited. Come this season were going to let our game do the talking.”
They’re still getting to know each other
NCAA rules allowing more offseason workouts have helped the rebuilt Wildcats come together, but Miller noted how they have “so much change and so many faces.”
That’s not an exaggeration.
Former walk-on Jake DesJardins is the only scholarship player remaining who played on Arizona’s 2017 Sweet Sixteen team, meaning nobody else has been part of an NCAA Tournament win. Arizona’s 11 scholarship players have only seven combined active seasons under Miller, though Smith and Jeter have also spent redshirt seasons at the UA.
Moreover, Miller has had to get to know some of his new guys quickly thanks in part to the effect that the federal investigation into college basketball had on his recruiting class.
Miller was in line to put together a top-three recruiting class in 2018, with players he had long been recruiting, but several of them dropped the UA from their lists and three commits bailed after the investigation was announced in September 2017.
Only Williams recommitted, forcing Miller to head into last April with only six players lined up for 2018-19. Miller says he aims to “get to know the people as best as you can” in recruiting but he didn’t have that luxury this spring.
He had to find bodies, quickly.
Miller managed to scrounge up a five-player spring class, going to watch Devonaire Doutrive immediately after the Wildcats lost to Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament — and landing him as a commit just three weeks later.
Later in April, Luther and Belgian wing Omar Thielemans committed within a week of taking an official visit together to Tucson.
But while Miller knew of Luther, who played at his alma mater of Pitt, the coach said he didn’t travel to Belgium to see Thielemans.
Arizona’s recruitment of Thielemans appeared particularly rushed. By the time he gave his preseason address on Oct. 1, Miller described Thielemans as “more of a developmental player” and the Belgian did not play in the Oct. 14 Red-Blue Game. By Oct. 17, UA announced Thielemans was leaving the team.
“Omar is a great young man, and we wish him the best going forward,” Miller said in a statement.
Later in the spring, Miller was able to land Coleman, an Alabama native who knew Smith and played in the Southeastern Conference.
But while Coleman and Luther have a combined six-plus seasons of college experience — Luther played 10 games as a senior last season before he was hurt — neither one has had a full season to soak up Miller’s system.
That’s not easy, though grad transfers have had success at Arizona before. Mark Lyons (Xavier) became the UA’s leading scorer in 2012-13, and Mark Tollefsen (San Francisco) was a part-time starter in 2015-16.
Coleman and Luther could make similar impacts, Miller indicated. Luther is likely to be the starting power forward while also playing some center, and Coleman will play significant minutes at point guard whether he’s a starter or backup.
“They have a really big opportunity here,” Miller said. “One of the keys when you (pursue) a grad transfer is you want to have a role for them because they have only one year. In both of their cases, they do. They were both very well-thought-of in the programs that they came from.”
Their style will change
Speaking of his breakthrough 33-5 team in 2013-14, Miller said some of the best moments came when he played guards T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson and Gabe York together.
That kind of arrangement may be a necessity on this team, which is loaded with talented guards but thin up front. It’s much different than last season’s group, which started burly Alkins at small forward and 7-footers Ayton and Ristic up front.
Randolph says the Wildcats will space the floor more without their two 7-footers, while Miller says having more skill and more ball-handlers on the court together could make them play a little faster, too.
The Wildcats won’t be able to set up a halfcourt play for one of Ayton’s near-automatic buckets anymore, but they just might be compelling to watch as they turn to a handful of smaller athletic guys to score.
Miller is “just gonna try different things this year because of our size differences,” Smith said. “Last year, other teams tried to create mismatches, but now with us we can do the same.”
Williams is a modern-day combo guard who could fit in well with that scheme, too.
“He can be a 1, he can be a 2, he can be part of three guards,” Miller said. “Using three guards is “the kind of the route we’re moving not only this year but beyond and I think Brandon is the type of player who can thrive in that system.”
When Coleman is in the game, he’ll be the point guard. Miller compared him somewhat to departed point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a fellow sub-6-footer.
“He’s a small point guard, a pass-first point guard and he has a knack for making his teammates better,” Miller said.
Miller is likely to mix and match Smith, Barcello, Brandon Randolph and possibly Doutrive as needed in the two wing spots. Barcello played backup point guard at times last season as a freshman but he may not be needed there this time.
“With Alex and Brandon (Williams), they don’t have to be in the game to be the point guard,” Miller said. “They can be off the ball with Justin in there, or on it.
“Brandon is a dynamic playmaker and scorer, and he’s very athletic in transition. His shot is continuing to develop, but he can score. With Alex, maybe the best thing he does is shoot the ball, so with us having a different group putting him off the ball makes a lot of sense.”
Miller also said Smith is “unique to our team” with his experience and ability to play both shooting guard and small forward. Smith is the Wildcats’ leading returning scorer, averaging 4.3 points last season over an average of 14.6 minutes a game.
While Doutrive is raw and slender, the athleticism and energy he showed at the UA’s Red-Blue Game may be encouraging for the Wildcats in the long run.
“The best is yet to come for Devonaire,” Miller said. “Physically, he’ll get bigger and stronger, and more accustomed to playing at this level. … his consistent effort is something we’re really excited about.”
The giants are gone
Miller brought in five-star 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski for the 2012-13 season after complaining of a “death by inches” the previous season, when Arizona used the 6-7 Jesse Perry at center. The Wildcats have had size up front ever since.
The past two seasons, Arizona started two 7-footers: Dusan Ristic and Lauri Markkanen in 2016-17 and Ayton and Ristic last season.
Those days are over. The presence of the 6-10 Jeter and the 6-9 Luther ensures the Wildcats won’t lose too many inches at center, but the Wildcats may use only one true big man at a time.
The development of Akot and the stretch-four shooting of Luther are central to the UA’s ability to pivot here. Luther shot 41.5 percent from 3-point range over his three-plus seasons at Pitt, while the 6-7 Akot is expected to play both forward spots this season in the mold of Solomon Hill (2009-13) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (2013-15).
“We’re definitely more versatile, especially guys like me and Ryan Luther,” Lee said. “We can both play the four and five, and the four this year is definitely more of an outside position.”
Arizona also must develop a go-to scorer inside, especially since Miller describes Jeter as more of a smart player who will help the most on the defensive end.
More than anything, though, the Wildcats need to keep their big guys healthy. Luther’s foot issues kept him out past of the past two seasons, while Jeter suffered a back injury at Duke. Akot’s knee tendinitis bothered him last season, and Lee dealt with a shoulder injury during his senior season in high school.
But Miller said all four frontcourt players have single-digit body fat percentages, which should help their stamina and durability.
“We don’t have a lot of depth up front. That’s one of the differences in coaching this year’s team,” Miller said.
“Since Year 4 (2012-13), that’s been one of the strengths of our team and as we’ve sustained different injuries, we’ve always had a lot of frontcourt depth and versatility. This year that’s what you worry about — both foul trouble and injuries. We’re going to be as smart as we can.”
They just might have more fun
A year ago, when Arizona was ranked No. 3 entering the season, the problem wasn’t lack of talent so much as a lack of minutes and shots for all that talent.
The Wildcats slipped entirely out of the Top 25 when they went 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis and, although they won the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles, never quite returned to that lofty perch.
Ayton and Trier took a third of the Wildcats’ shots and, when Alkins returned in December, minutes given to Randolph shrank dramatically. Similarly, Barcello’s minutes evaporated when Trier began sliding over to the point when Jackson-Cartwright was off the floor.
Miller made his reasoning clear: “Last year, we had a talented starting five, an experienced group,” he said.
Now, without those starters back, the opportunity is wide open. That could lead to better harmony as a result.
“At first it was (strange with all the newcomers) but I love these guys,” Lee said. “We’ve definitely meshed well so far. I’m happy with the direction we’re going.”
Even the soft-spoken Smith says he’s excited about the mismatches UA can create with its versatile, quick and agile lineup.
It will be different, yeah. But also the same, Smith says.
Because Miller is around.
“We’re implementing new things. It’s not going to be the same because we don’t have Dusan and ’Dre,” Smith said. “But it’s definitely going to be the same coach Miller principles — playing hard and playing with passion. So everything’s going to be good.”
Arizona 2018-19 schedule
Nov. 7: Houston Baptist, 7 p.m.
Nov. 11: Cal Poly. 3 p.m.
Nov. 14: UTEP, 6 p.m.
Nov. 19: Iowa State, 7 p.m., Maui Invitational, Lahaina, Hawaii
Nov. 20: Maui Invitational, TBA, Lahaina, Hawaii
Nov. 21: Maui Invitational, TBA, Lahaina, Hawaii
Nov. 29: Georgia Southern, 7 p.m.
Dec 2: at Connecticut, 11 a.m.
Dec. 6: Utah Valley, 7 p.m.
Dec. 9: at Alabama, 11 a.m.
Dec. 15: Baylor, 9 p.m.
Dec. 19: Montana, 6:30 p.m.
Dec. 22: U.C. Davis, 5 p.m.
Jan. 3: Colorado, 7 p.m.
Jan. 5: Utah, 12 p.m.
Jan. 9: at Stanford, 9 p.m.
Jan. 12: at California, 8:30 p.m.
Jan. 17: Oregon, 7 p.m.
Jan. 19: Oregon State, 5 p.m.
Jan. 24: at USC, 7 p.m.
Jan. 26: at UCLA, 8 p.m.
Jan. 31: at Arizona State, 7 p.m.
Feb. 7: Washington, 7 p.m.
Feb. 9: Washington State, 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 14: at Utah, 7 p.m.
Feb. 17: at Colorado, 6 p.m.
Feb. 21: at California, 7 p.m.
Feb. 24: Stanford, 6 p.m.
Feb. 28: Oregon State, 7 p.m.
Mar. 2: at Oregon, TBA
Mar. 9: Arizona State, 2 p.m.
Arizona 2018-19 roster
1 – Devonaire Doutrive, 6-5, 175, G, Fr.
2 – Brandon Williams, 6-2, 190, G, Fr.
3 – Dylan Smith, 6-5, 170, G, RS Jr.
4 – Chase Jeter, 6-10, 230, F/C, RS Jr.
5 – Brandon Randolph, 6-6, 175, G, So.
10 – Ryan Luther, 6-9, 225, F, Sr.
11 – Ira Lee, 6-7, 235, F. So.
12 – Justin Coleman, 5-10, 170, G, Sr.
23 – Alex Barcello, 6-2, 180, G, So.
24 – Emmanuel Akot, 6-7, 200, G, So.
50 – Alec Spence, 6-6, 195, G, Fr.
52 – Korey Jones, 6-3, 170, G, RS So.
54 – Matt Weyand, 6-5, 190, F, So.
55 – Jake DesJardins, 6-6, 215, F, Jr.
Head coach: Sean Miller
Assistants: Mark Phelps, Justin Gainey, Danny Peters