Expectations will be high again this year as the University of Arizona basketball team takes another shot at not only getting into the NCAA tournament in March, but helping head coach Sean Miller make his first Final Four appearance.
And riding the Wildcat Express to those lofty heights will be a group of former in-state prep stars who could make significant contributions to the anticipated success.
Three of the four are part of a 2017 recruiting class ranked No. 3 in the nation, behind Duke and Kentucky.
Ira Lee, a 6’7″ forward, should perhaps be considered an ‘honorary member’ of the freshman group since he was born in Arizona and grew up in Glendale, but attended high school at Crossroads School in California. He earned his spot on this year’s Wildcats roster by being named to the ESPN Top 100 list of prospects.
The high-profile members of this year’s class, and those most recognizable to Arizona hoops fans, are DeAndre Ayton and Alex Barcello.
And then add Talbot Denny, a redshirt senior, to the locals’ list and you have four players who got their start within our borders, each of whom could make significant contributions to a potential run deep into the post-season – and, as some analysts are projecting, maybe even a chance at a national title. Arizona’s pre-season ranking is likely to be in the top five.
There’s good reason to expect that Miller will guide this group to a national ranking and legitimate run at the Final Four appearance that has eluded him throughout his 13 years as a college head coach. Over the past five seasons, the Wildcats have averaged 30 wins a season and made it to a couple of Elite Eight and two more Sweet Sixteen appearances.
But no preseason during Miller’s eight years in Tucson has held more promise than this one.
One big reason for that is Ayton, the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2017. The 7-footer averaged a double-double during his last two years of prep ball, played at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix.
He announced his commitment to the Arizona program in early September of last year and thus became the biggest recruiting coup for Miller, and possibly the program itself. Miller landed a couple of No. 4-ranked prospects during his time in Tucson, Kaleb Tarczewski in 2012 and Aaron Gordon in 2013, but Ayton is the first top dog.
However, the Barcello name may be even more recognizable to Arizona fans since he played for Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School, which, unlike Hillcrest which travels around the country to play, got a lot of media attention from its run of four consecutive state championships. Barcello was a key player on two of those four teams.
The 6’2″ guard, ranked by 247Sports as the top high school prospect at his position in the state, enjoyed a lot of publicity when he committed to play at UofA at the end of August in 2016 – but it was short-lived. Little more than a week later Ayton stole the headlines with his commitment, elevating the Wildcat recruiting class to a top-three designation.
Selected to the ESPN Top 100 in 2017, he had been named the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year following his sophomore and senior seasons.
But Denny will bring something to the party that none of the freshman trio can provide – college experience. The 6’5″ forward played for Salpointe High School in Tucson, where he was a First Team All-State selection before leaving the state to play at Lipscomb University in Tennessee.
He played in 90 games over three seasons at Lipscomb before being sidelined with an injury for the 2015-16 season. Before he could get on the floor for the Wildcats, the graduate transfer suffered a knee injury in pre-season play and also missed last season.
So Denny will be a question mark coming into the 2017-18 season, but could play a key role coming off the bench.