During his coaching career, University of Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller has taken teams to three Sweet 16 and four Elite Eight appearances, but never ascended into that rarified atmosphere that is the Final Four, the prize that is considered by most observers to separate the good college coaches from the elite in their profession.
However, barring any key injuries during the last nine games of the regular season, there’s a good chance that will change in March.
There are four primary components a team needs to go deep in the postseason: a solid defense, either a go-to scorer or multiple players taking turns with big numbers, some size, and a deep bench.
The Wildcats have all four.
Defense has always been a trademark of a Sean Miller-coached team and his teams during his seven-plus seasons in Tucson are no exception. This year’s team is forcing 12.2 turnovers a game and holding opponents to under 30 percent shooting from behind the arc. While averaging 76.3 points a game, they have allowed just 63 points per game.
On offense, the Cats rely heavily on 7-foot center Lauri Markkanen, who is leading the scoring with 17 points a game. The freshman sensation from Finland is averaging 53 percent shooting from the field, 50.5 from three-point range, and when you send him to the free-throw line he cans 84 percent of his shots.
Markkanen earned Pac-12 Player of the Week and National Player of the Week honors following a sweep last week of the Los Angeles schools. He led the Cats in scoring (20.5 points per game) and rebounding (7.5 boards/game).
But this team also has five more players averaging in double figures: Allonzo Trier (13.7), Dusan Ristic (11.9), Kobi Simmons (11.8), Rawle Alkins (11.7), and Kadeem Allen (10.3). For opposing defenses, it’s like playing whack-a-mole as a different scorer pops up with a big night.
And size isn’t a problem for Arizona this year. Miller has the only roster among D-I schools that enables him to start two 7-footers – the other being Ristic – and then sub in a 6’11” center, in this case Chance Comanche, a sophomore from Beverly Hills who was ‘seasoned’ last year when he appeared in 23 games as a true freshman and has appeared in every game this season.
In addition, the Cats have good size in the backcourt. Allen, at 6’3″, is the smallest player in the starting line-up right now. The team is averaging 38 rebounds a game, seven more than their opponents each night.
Most teams aren’t blessed with senior leadership since the really good players don’t stay that long in college, often leaving early for the NBA draft. But Arizona has some of that, too. They have Allen, a redshirt senior, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a junior, running the offense in the backcourt.
Jackson-Cartwright is seeing limited time right now, still working his way back to full strength after missing six games with a high-ankle injury. His recovery was expected to take eight weeks, but he cut two weeks off that to return at partial strength in time for the Pac-12 opener, an upset of No. 3 UCLA. During his absence, Allen was moved from the wing back to the point, where he played much of last year.
Trier, who had an impressive freshman year last season during which he averaged 14.8 points and had considered entering the NBA draft before deciding to return this season, sat out the first 81 days of the season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in September (see Phxfan article 1/23/17).
Without him, the Wildcats still posted an 18-2 record and are now 20-2 and ranked No. 7 nationally.
With him back in the line-up, the Cats have become a legitimate Final Four contender.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics / Stan Liu)