UA opens hoops season No. 12 after red-hot pre-season

Around 9:30 last Saturday night, an attack team of 10 firefighters burst into McKale Center in response to a two-alarm fire that had erupted in the equipment room of the venerable old building on the University of Arizona campus.

The fire was doused, the smoke cleared from the building, and no one was injured.

But the incident draws an appropriate analogy to the start of the 2012-13 basketball season at Arizona.  The Wildcats have  been on fire in the pre-season, averaging 103 points over the two games, winning each by an average of almost 40 points.

And, to draw another analogy to the 10-man team of firefighters, the Cats had 10 players that averaged better than 12 minutes of playing time in each game. They have depth this year that wasn’t available to them last season.

But they also have height, experience, and the addition of talent from one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.

In other words, Arizona basketball is loaded this year.  Which accounts for the No. 12 national ranking in the AP poll as the regular-season schedule gets underway Sunday in a game against Charleston Southern.

Last year they were ranked No. 16 in the pre-season, but went 1-1 in the exhibition games after an embarrassing loss to Seattle Pacific.  They struggled throughout the rest of the season, missed getting an invitation to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, and ended up losing in the first round of the NIT.

But this year, the No. 12 ranking seems to be a fair assessment of their capabilities.  This is a team that could even exceed the success of the 2010-11 squad that made it to the Elite Eight.

In short, the faithful in Tucson have reason to begin thinking about their tradition-rich program in similar fashion to the days when Lute Olson put it among the nation’s elite, and then kept it there for more than two decades.

Sean Miller, the fourth-year coach from Xavier who is restoring the lustre to the program, is putting a completely different team on the floor this season.  And the final two pieces to complete the building process came in the form of a point-guard transfer with both experience and a shooter’s touch, and a 7-foot, 257-pound center to anchor the middle.

The addition of Mark Lyon, a graduate transfer from Xavier, to run the point has elevated the Cats from potentially being just another ranked team this season to a squad that should run deep into the post-season and even wind up in the Final Four.  Whether they can contend for Milller’s first national title in his eight-year college head-coaching career will depend on how the puzzle pieces fit together.

But Lyon will be a good one to lead them into the post-season.  He took Xavier to three Sweet 16 appearances.  He’s been there before.

He replaces Josiah Turner, a 5-star recruit who never matched expectations on the court and had even more trouble off the court, to bring a seasoned maturity and consistency to the offense.

The other puzzle pieces include Kaleb Tarczewski, a seven-foot freshman that was headed for Kansas before some of the Arizona players convinced him to join them in Tucson.  Another five-star recruit, he will bring solid rebounding to the team’s effort, but he has also been working on his shooting all summer and averaged just over 12 points in the exhibition contests to go with his five boards in each.

To complement Tarzcewski’s offensive work, Miller brought in a 6’9″ shot-blocker to add intimidation on the defensive side.  While at Herbert Hoover High School in California, Angelo Chol moved into second place on the California all-time high school list for rebounds with 1,732, and second on the national career list for blocked shots with 1,120.  Oh yeah, he also scored 2,133 points during his four years.

And Tarczewski and Chol aren’t the only height on the Wildcat roster.  Five of the eight players joining this year’s roster are 6’8″ or taller.  The starting five for the two exhibition games averaged almost 6’7″ – which is three inches taller than the starters that closed out last season.

That means that the 6’7″ Solomon Hill won’t have to play the power forward position this year.  He can move outside the key and concentrate on providing points, something he started with the exhibition games where he averaged 16.5 points a game, while still pulling down six boards per.

He’s also the obvious choice to provide the senior leadership this season, maybe sharing the role with Kevin Parrom.

Parrom, who has the ability to swing between the guard and forward positions, missed a good part of last year, playing in just 20 games but scored on 42 percent of his field-goal attempts.  His value to the program couldn’t be accurately evaluated last year; he suffered gunshot wounds in the off-season, lost both his mother and grandmother, and broke his foot midway through the schedule.  But Miller says he’s one of the best, if not the best, shooters on the team.

So the first real test for Parrom, and the rest of the team, comes Sunday afternoon at 4 o’clock when the Cats welcome the Charleston Southern Buccaneers to McKale Center.

It will be the first meeting between the two basketball programs, and should be a good game.  The Buccaneers were picked as the pre-season favorite to win the Big South Conference this year.  They return four starters from last year’s squad that finished third in the conference, averaging 77 points a game.

At Media Day, Miller said he felt this year’s edition was a “much better team” than last year, but felt they need to “take every game as if it’s the only game.”

That philosophy will be tested by Charleston Southern, a team that could be the kind of early-season spoiler that Seattle Pacific was last year.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)