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No. 6 Arizona Wildcats embracing the hype

October 31, 2013

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Expectations have come with the territory at Arizona, from the winning foundation Lute Olson built to the resurgence led by Sean Miller.

This season, with a solid core of returning players, another stellar class of freshmen and a pass-first point guard, the hype may burst through the McKale Center roof.

Not that it matter to the No. 6 Wildcats. They not only expect to be considered one of the nation’s best teams, they welcome it.

“We embrace it — it’s what every college kid wants to play for,” junior guard Nick Johnson said. “At the same time, none of that matters now. We’ve just been working hard so we achieve our goals.”

There’s plenty of reasons to believe these Wildcats can reach whatever goals they set.

Arizona has several key players back from a team that won 27 games and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last season, including Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Jordin Mayes.

Miller has had a knack for pulling together some of the nation’s best recruiting classes and this past season was no different, adding dynamic forward Aaron Gordon and versatile forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Perhaps the biggest difference-maker will be point guard T.J. McConnell.

A transfer from Duquesne, he had to sit out last season, but was able to practice with the team, so he already knows Miller’s style of play and has chemistry with the returning players.

With McConnell, Arizona has what it lacked last season: A true point guard.

Mark Lyons did an admirable job in his lone season in Tucson, but was more of a shooting guard filling the point role. McConnell is a pass-first point guard and could be the piece that leads this talented group on a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

“We like having those kinds of expectations,” McConnell said. “Now we just have to go out and show that we can live up to them.”

Here’s five things to look for as the Wildcats head into the 2013-14 season:

VERSATILITY: Arizona doesn’t have a ton of depth and Miller will likely play with a fairly tight rotation. What the Wildcats have is versatility. Ashley, Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson are all athletic players who can play multiple positions, so Miller can use a variety of lineups, depending on the opponent or what he’s trying to do. Arizona can go with a big front line with Tarczewski in the middle and Ashley at the small forward or can utilize a lineup where Ashley is the center and Johnson is the small forward. The Wildcats will be a matchup nightmare for whatever team they play.

GORDON’S IMPACT: College basketball is filled with talented freshmen this season, including what could be a starting five’s worth at Kentucky. Gordon has a chance to be the best of the bunch. Long and athletic, the 6-foot-9 forward can get to the rim, shoot and has a superb all-around game. He’s also been a winner everywhere he’s been, earning multiple MVP trophies during games and tournaments over the summer. Miller has been most impressed with Gordon’s work ethic and willingness to learn, which should only make him better as the season progresses.

MCCONNELL’S DEFENSE. McConnell makes good decisions with the ball, evident by his turnover ratio of 2.5-1 in 2010-11, sixth-best in NCAA history by a freshman. His biggest impact could be on the defensive end. Though he’s not as big or athletic as most of the players he goes against, McConnell has great defensive instincts and anticipation. He averaged 2.8 steals per game at Duquesne, ranking third and fourth nationally his two seasons there and is expected to give the Wildcats a boost at the top of their defense.

PERIMETER SHOOTING? Miller’s main concern heading into this season is his team’s perimeter shooting. For all the talent it has inside, Arizona doesn’t have many true outside shooters on its roster. Because of that, Miller had his team spend the summer shooting one perimeter shot after another, saying he didn’t think there was a team in the country that shot more basketballs than his. McConnell is a good outside shooter, Johnson has proven to be as well and the addition of Zach Peters, who got clearance from the NCAA to play this season after transferring from Kansas, should help.

DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE: For all the questions Arizona has about its ability to shoot, the Wildcats may be able to make up for any deficiencies with defense. Johnson, the nephew of Hall of Fame NBA guard Dennis Johnson, is a tenacious defender and will team with McConnell in what could be the nation’s best defensive backcourt. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson are capable defenders and enjoy playing that side of the ball, and will give Miller versatility to throw in full-court pressure and traps to the man defense he likes to run. The Wildcats also have the 7-foot Tarczewski to erase any mistakes at the rim.

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