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Top 25 Preview: No. 11 Arizona blends freshman firepower, experience

February 26, 2015 9:25:42 PM - Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller directs the offense as his team play against Colorado during their regular season Pac-12 basketball game at the Coors Events Center in Boulder, Co. Arizona won the game 82-54.
Marc Piscotty/Icon Sportswire

Sean Miller has attracted some impressive signing classes to Tucson in his seven years as Arizona head basketball coach.

The crop of 2016 Wildcat newcomers has a high bar to meet Miller’s first Arizona class of Derrick Williams, Momo Jones and Solomon Hill, which came a shot from the Final Four in 2011 and essentially saved the program at a pivotal juncture in its history. This year’s freshman class benefits from joining a veteran roster immediately built to contend for a Pac-12 and national championship.

Freshmen Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Lauri Markkanen ranked as one of the nation’s most highly-touted signing classes of the most recent recruiting period. The three first-year Wildcats join proven commodity Allonzo Trier, veterans Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen, as well as high-potential prospects Ray Smith and Chance Comanche to form what could be Arizona’s most talented roster in Miller’s tenure.

Much as the 2016 signees face a high standard set by the 2009 recruits, the benchmark set for the 2016-’17 Wildcats is lofty. Labeling this potentially Miller’s most talented team isn’t done lightly.

Arizona reached back-to-back Elite Eights in 2014 and 2015 behind lineups that featured NBA players T.J. McConnell, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, as well as great college players Nick Johnson and Brandon Ashley.

The Wildcats disappointed a season ago, stumbling to the middle of a crowded Pac-12, and bowing out in a first-round blowout loss to Wichita State.

Last season’s failures should fuel the Wildcats in a resurgent season to come.

Miller’s lineup features playmakers at each spot, 1 through 5. Arizona’s strength is at the wing — assuming the position’s cornerstone is available when the season tips off.

Trier, a breakout star as a freshman last year, was abruptly pulled from Friday’s Pac-12 Media Day session in San Francisco. Miller was noncommittal about rumors of trouble coming Trier’s way last week following the Wildcats’ annual Red-Blue Game, and again on Friday.

Trier’s availability plays a central role in Arizona’s makeup, especially early in the season as the freshmen get up to speed. If he is in the lineup, the dynamic between Trier and Smith at the forward spots should be intriguing.

Smith sustained two different ACL injuries that kept him from debuting the last two years. He’s a promising athlete who would give the Wildcats size and athleticism that were at times lacking a season ago.

Speaking of size, that won’t be an issue for the Wildcats in the coming campaign.

The 7-foot Markkanen gives Arizona a stretch-four in the vein of Ashley, with both Ristic and Comanche able to fill the traditional 5-spot Kaleb Tarczewski vacated. Ristic has shown flashes of brilliance in his time at Arizona, particularly playing the same kind of physical banger role Tarczewski manned.

Comanche put on nearly 20 pounds in the offseason, which should serve him well. He played sparingly a season ago, but in one stretch at Utah, out-dueled NBA lottery pick Jakob Poeltl.

Length combined with athleticism will be key to Arizona’s title aspirations. The Wildcats were badly exposed in a lopsided home loss last season against eventual Pac-12 champion Oregon, the preseason favorite to win the conference again in 2017.

The Ducks used a swarming defensive style that closed off passing lanes and generated turnovers to become the best team in the West. The 2016-’17 Wildcats have a similar look — assuming Miller’s best recruiting class since 2009 fulfills its promise.

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