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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 13 Arizona Wildcats

Photo: Icon Sportswire

Arizona lost four starters from last season’s team. It sounds worse than it is.

Coach Sean Miller, who has taken the Wildcats to a regional final in three of the past five seasons, is a master of roster construction. He won’t be caught in transition. He has a trio of veteran, experienced transfers joining a few key holdovers and a four-man freshman class.

Well, make that a three-man freshman class.

Freshman forward Ray Smith, who missed his senior year of high school because of a torn left ACL, suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in practice last week and will miss the season, the school confirmed Saturday. When he signed with Arizona, Miller said Smith might be the most talented player he has signed since coming to Tucson before the 2009-10 season.

With Smith’s injury, Arizona’s best-in-the-Pac-12 depth will be tested right away.

This is still a team with many moving parts and the ability to play big or small. What it doesn’t have is a sure-fire lottery pick like Aaron Gordon or Stanley Johnson, who were one-and-dones in the past two seasons.

“One of the things that is unique right now is there is not as big of a difference, maybe, from our second and third best player on our team to our ninth and 10th,” Miller said in early October. “Usually at this time, you have three or four guys that you clearly know are head and shoulders above, and then you wait to see who emerges.”

Key Offseason Departures: T.J. McConnell (point guard), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (wing), Stanley Johnson (forward), Brandon Ashley (power forward)

Johnson was the eighth pick in the NBA Draft, and Hollis-Jefferson went No. 23 overall, while the undrafted McConnell was the heartbeat of a team that went 67-9 the past two seasons under his court leadership.

Ashley left after his junior year and was not drafted.

In practical terms, those four players accounted for 47.6 points per game, 22.3 rebounds and 72.9 percent of the team’s assists. What is harder to quantify is the defense lost.

The Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year award went to Oregon State’s Gary Payton II, but it could have — perhaps should have — gone to Hollis-Jefferson, who could skillfully defend point guards through power forwards, often in the same game. McConnell, who averaged 2.2 steals per game, was savvy and tough on the ball.

There is no obvious defensive ace in the mold of Hollis-Jefferson, although 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski is a space-eating rim protector, 6-9 newcomer Mark Tollefsen can guard multiple positions, and guards Elliott Pitt, Kadeem Allen and Justin Simon are plus-defenders.

Tarczewski, who averaged 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds last season, will be a fourth-year starter. Senior guard Gabe York (9.2 ppg, 66 of 165 3-pointers) has started a handful of games and been a super sub the past two seasons.

Best early guess at a new-look starting lineup:

PG: Parker Jackson-Cartwright

SG: York

SF: Tollefsen

PF: Ryan Anderson

C: Tarczewski

Tarczewski and Anderson are set. Let’s say it’s a fluid situation at the other spots.

Key Additions: Ryan Anderson (power forward), Mark Tollefsen (forward), Kadeem Allen (combo guard), Allonzo Trier (guard), Justin Simon (guard), Chance Comanche (power forward)

Anderson, a senior transfer from Boston College, and Tollefsen, a graduate transfer from San Francisco, looked great in the team’s Red-Blue Game in front of a sold-out McKale Center crowd.

Anderson (6-9, 235) led the Blue with 15 points and eight rebounds. Tollefsen made all five of his shots from the field, finishing with 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals for the Red. Sure, it was only a scrimmage, but both were active and versatile, and they have the successful backgrounds to think this will be an easy transition.

Anderson, a former third-team All-ACC performer, bench pressed 185 pounds 21 times in preseason workouts.

“Ryan has done as good of a job changing his body in a year’s time as any player that we’ve had,” Miller said. “He’s more physical than he ever has been, and he has a style and way of playing that have made him our team’s best player early on.”

Anderson and Tarczewski create a formidable post combination with rare experience (a combined 199 career college starts).

Tollefsen becomes an even bigger X-factor because of Smith’s injury. Miller can go big with a lineup that includes Tollefsen at small forward, assuming he can handle the defensive demands, which he apparently can. He’ll play the 3 and the 4.

“He can guard the interior and the perimeter,” Miller said.

“That’s very difficult. There are not many players you can say can guard the other team’s 4-man or someone who is a wing player or a scorer. We knew that before he came here. That’s one of the reasons why we felt so strongly about getting him to come to Arizona after he left USF, because of his versatility on defense.

Tollefsen can also stretch defenses with his 3-point shooting.

Given Smith’s injury, Miller will also have to go with three-guard lineups. Trier, Simon and junior Elliott Pitts should be part of that equation.

Pitts isn’t flashy but has earned the coaches’ trust. Trier is a confident shooter and scorer (this Arizona team will have more firepower from the outside than last year’s team that took a league-low 14.1 3-pointers per game). Offensively, he’s potentially more potent that what Arizona has had recently.

Simon’s ticket to playing time will be his defense.

“Justin Simon has great length. It’s going to happen for him,” Miller said of the 6-5 freshman becoming a great defender.

Allen was the 2014 junior college player of the year who redshirted last season to adjust to college and not burn a season as a backup. Through the first few weeks or so of camp, he was pushing Jackson-Cartwright, last season’s understudy, for the starting job.

Allen showed a knack in junior college of being a pure scorer, getting into the lane and drawing fouls, but that might not be his best attribute. Remember, above all, Miller is a defense-first coach.

“Defensively, he brings some things to the table that we’ve had on our recent teams,” Miller said. “You learn to trust a guy like that on defense because he plays very hard and has a lot of talent.”

Freshman Chance Comanche seemed like a redshirt candidate because of the team’s depth and the need to add weight, but that could change if Tollefsen spends more time at the 3 than in the rotation at the 4.

Dusan Ristic, a 7-foot sophomore, is one of the best backup big men in the country, skilled offensively and having added an amazing 39 pounds of muscle, Miller said, since arriving in the summer of 2014.

Schedule Analysis

As Miller tests out different combinations, Arizona will have a few major tests before Pac-12 play begins, including a tricky early home game against Boise State on Nov. 19.

College basketball fans are hoping for an Arizona-Michigan State showdown in the final of the DirecTV Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim. Those are the top two seeds in the eight-team event. After that, the Wildcats get a true tough road game — at Gonzaga on Dec. 5. That figures to be a battle between the two best frontcourts in the West (and two of the best anywhere).

Arizona has five consecutive home games to end the calendar year, including Missouri (Dec. 13) and athletic UNLV (Dec. 19).

Pac-12 play begins at Arizona State, where the Wildcats have lost in each of the past two seasons. Extra intrigue: Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley makes his rivalry debut against Miller. In the unbalanced league schedule, Arizona doesn’t have to travel to the Oregon schools (that’s a break) and doesn’t play host to Utah and Colorado.

Final Preview and Prediction

These Wildcats have united under a slogan “Just Us.”

“We don’t have a top 5 or a top 10 pick this year but, together, just us is all we need to be successful,” Anderson said.

“We don’t need everyone out there hyping us up. We don’t need everyone out there knocking us down. We just need us in this circle. We just need our guys to play hard, to believe in our system and believe in Coach Miller. Just us as a group, we can do special things.”

Arizona has won the Pac-12 regular season by three games in each of the past two seasons. That gap doesn’t exist this season. In Today’s U Top 25, Cal is rated one spot higher.

This Arizona team will be a work in progress more than that past couple of squads, but Miller says he likes the chemistry and coachability. It would be no surprise if the Cats were peaking in mid-March, able to reach another regional final.

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