Stock Watch Pac-12: Arizona aiming for a national title; Washington State facing an uphill climb
During the next few weeks, One and One will highlight two teams from each conference — one riding a positive trajectory heading into the 2013-14 season (stock up) and one headed for a decline (stock down). The unpredictability of college basketball could force a reassessment of these projections at some point in the next few months, but whether our analysis is prescient or misguided, watching the following teams perform in the upcoming season should be fascinating.
Stock up: Arizona
In Sean Miller’s fifth season at Arizona, the Wildcats are in a position where, because of preseason expectations, winning a conference championship probably won’t seem like an accomplishment. Finishing ahead of Pac-12 championship contenders Oregon, UCLA and Colorado won’t be easy, but Arizona will not be measured by what it accomplishes in the regular season. It will be measured by what it accomplishes in the NCAA Tournament. And on that scale, anything short of a trip to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the Final Four will feel like a flop for the Wildcats.
That’s easy to say from this distance, of course. Arizona might run into a really hot team in the Round of 32 or go cold during a pivotal second-half stretch in the Elite 8. The one-game elimination format of the NCAA Tournament is unforgiving.
It’s impossible to predict how Arizona will fare in the tournament, but it’s safe to say this much about Sean Miller’s team: It is the most talented team in what should be one of the best and deepest leagues in the country. That might be hard to reconcile, given that Arizona lost three of its top four scorers from last season. Look at the Wildcats’ roster, though, and you’ll notice a formidable mix of talented upperclassmen and promising youngsters — including the three true freshman that make up the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class in 2013, according to Rivals, and three of the sophomores that belonged to last year’s third-ranked class.
Those players are young, but their talent trumps their inexperience. Start with Aaron Gordon, the No. 2 power forward and No. 3 player overall in the class, who chose the Wildcats over Kentucky, UNLV and Kansas, among other programs. Gordon’s freakish athleticism is no secret to most college basketball fans; the question for Arizona is what position Gordon, who could step into a perimeter-oriented role in the NBA, will play this season. Whether he lines up at small forward or power forward, Gordon should quickly establish himself as one of the top players in the Pac-12, if not the country.
The other Top 25 player Arizona signed for this season, forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, hasn’t received nearly as much hype as Gordon, but his ability to finish at the rim, post up smaller defenders and defend numerous positions will be huge assets for the Wildcats. Hollis-Jefferson will likely begin the season as one of Arizona’s top bench contributors. The starting spots in the frontcourt could go to sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski (6.6 points per game) and Brandon Ashley (7.5), two effective rebounders and shot-blockers who should be able to put up more points this season.
Kansas transfer Zach Peters, who reportedly has been medically cleared after suffering multiple concussions last year, could add depth to the frontcourt, while junior college transfer Matt Korchek, who redshirted last season, is another reserve option.
As impressive as the Wildcats’ frontcourt is, the backcourt isn’t all that far behind. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell ranked in the nation’s top 100 in assist rate (30.9) and steal percentage (4.7) as a sophomore in 2011-12, according to Kenpom.com. He should be a better fit for the Wildcats than score-first point guard Mark Lyons. McConnell also provides something Miller, a former point guard at Pittsburgh, hasn’t had since he arrived in Tuscon in 2009 — a “true” point guard. McConnell will be joined in the backcourt by junior Nick Johnson, a versatile player athletic enough to make plays like this and skilled enough to make good use of the increased number of scoring opportunities he should have this season. Johnson is also one of Arizona’s best three-point shooters, and they’ll need him after losing top long-range threats Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, Grant Jerrett and Lyons in the offseason.
This is a talented, balanced team that has the potential to compete for a national championship. Before it reaches the postseason, Arizona will need to get through a rugged Pac-12 schedule. In any case, college hoops fans across the country — whether or not those late night Pac-12 tip-offs jibe with sleep schedules on the east coast — should have a lot of fun tracking the progress of Sean Miller’s team from November to March.
Stock down: Washington State
It might be too early to raise the question.
The standards for winning at Washington State aren’t what they are at, say, Arizona. But after seeing how successful former head coach Tony Bennett could be at the school — the now-Virginia head coach led the Cougars to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances as recent as 2007-08 — it’s fair to wonder whether patience is wearing thin on head coach Ken Bone.
Washington State has trended downward under Bone since 2010-11, when former star Klay Thompson led the Cougars to a 9-9 Pac-12 season, going from seven conference wins in 2011-12 to four last season. What’s worse, it doesn’t appear likely that Bone’s team can reverse the program’s multi-year backslide this season.
One of the biggest reasons why is the departure of forward Brock Motum, the Cougars’ leading scorer (18.7 points per game) and rebounder (6.3 rpg) from 2012-13. Motum was Washington State’s “go-to” offensive player in every sense of the term: his 28.9 usage rate, the highest among Pac-12 players last season, and 32.2 shot percentage were top 100 figures nationally, according to Kenpom.
The Cougars will have a tough time replacing Motum’s offensive output, but they do return two double-digit scorers, Kansas transfer Royce Woolridge (11.0) and DaVonte Lacy (10.5), from last season. Both should start in Washington State’s backcourt alongside highly touted redshirt freshman Que Johnson, who sat out last season as a partial qualifier. Johnson, who turned down scholarship offers from Virginia, Missouri, Gonzaga, Washington and UNLV, among other programs, is the best prospect Bone has recruited to Pullman and is expected to make a big impact this season. Fellow freshman Ike Iroegbu, a graduate of national powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, should see time in the backcourt behind Johnson, Woolridge and Lacy.
Another newcomer, Iowa State transfer Jordan Railey, will help fill the frontcourt void left by Motum’s departure. Senior D.J. Shelton was an efficient scorer in limited minutes as a sophomore, but saw his field goal percentage dip precipitously (61.5 to 37.6) last season. Offensive contributions aside, Railey’s shotblocking and Shelton’s rebounding are important assets for a team that has ranked no higher than 199th in effective field goal percentage defense in all but one season (2010-11) of Bone’s tenure, according to Kenpom.
If Woolridge, who averaged 18.9 points during the Cougars’ last seven games of 2012-13 (including a 36-point explosion in an overtime loss to Oregon), can carry his hot streak into this season and Johnson lives up to his billing, Washington State should be able score enough points to stay competitive in most Pac-12 contests. The question is whether Bone can get his team to improve defensively. Defense is probably the biggest reason why Bennett was able to lead comparatively less-talented teams to two winning Pac-12 seasons, but the Cougars haven’t maintained that identity under Bone.
The fifth-year coach likely won’t be able to turn his team into an elite defensive outfit within the space of one offseason, but if the Cougars can get even marginally better on that side of the ball, they have a good chance to finish ahead of potential conference bottom-feeders Utah and USC. Progress in little steps, not big leaps, is what Cougars fans should hope for this season.
Previous pieces in this series:
- SEC: Kentucky chasing perfection; Ole Miss falling back
- Big Ten: Michigan State has Final Four potential; Illinois not ready to contend
- Big 12: Oklahoma State poised to challenge Kansas; Kansas State taking a step back
- Big East: Villanova trending upward, Butler set for a rough transition
- American Athletic: UConn on the rise, Temple rebuilding
- Atlantic 10: UMass climbing, St. Bonaventure set to backslide
- ACC: North Carolina on the rise, Miami poised for tough season