No Slowing Down For Wildcats
By Nicole Dimtsios
The Arizona men's basketball team finished atop the Pac-10 Conference last season and is showing no signs of slowing down in 2011.
"Any time you have the success that we had last year especially in March, it's a feeling you want to return to," head coach Sean Miller said.
Arizona, which finished with a 30-8 record, will have to try to return to the postseason without the immediate help of forward Derrick Williams, point guard Lamont Jones and forward Kevin Parrom. Williams was selected No. 2 overall in the NBA Draft in June and Jones elected to transfer after the end of the season. Parrom was expected to return to the team this year, but was involved in a shooting in Bronx, N.Y., on Sept. 24. Miller said he is still hoping Parrom can return to the team this season.
Although Parrom is able to walk, Miller said that it would be "cautiously optimistic" to expect Parrom to play this season.
"We're going to have to learn to play and practice without him," Miller said. "Again, optimistically, maybe cautiously optimistically, we hope to return and welcome him back to our team at some point."
The turnover has led Miller to take his play and score by committee to the next level.
"It's very much an evolving process as we mix in four freshmen with four seniors and try to figure out if Kevin's going to rejoin us," Miller said.
Finding the proper dynamic begins by welcoming back three starters, anchored by senior guard Kyle Fogg.
Fogg led the Wildcats in assists last season and was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 Defensive Team and led Arizona in assists last season.
"I'm just trying to have one more great season and go out with a bang for my senior year," Fogg said. "We're going to work as hard as we can to make it to that special place again."
The Wildcats also welcome back senior forward Jesse Perry and junior forward Solomon Hill, who, along with Fogg, will be veteran leaders to the four highly touted incoming freshmen. All three players averaged almost 20 minutes of playing time per game last season.
Kyryl Natyazhko, Arizona's center, will also have to be more productive this season for Miller and the Wildcats. With the loss of Williams in the box, Natyzhko, at 6-foot-11, will have to be Arizona's physical presence under the basket and in the rebounding game.
"I do think right now we need (Natyazhko) to be better and a more instrumental part of what we're doing," Miller said. "We need him to be able to play more minutes."
Although unproven at the collegiate level, the biggest surprise for the Wildcats this season could be the impact of the four freshmen joining the team.
Miller said the Wildcats would integrate guards Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner and forwards Sidiki Johnson and Angelo Chol into the lineup immediately.
Because of their high school experiences Nick Johnson, listed at 6-foot-two, 198 pounds, and Turner, 6-foot-3, 192 pounds, are ready to make an immediate impact. Combined with Fogg, returning guards Jordin Mayes and Brendon Lavender, Johnson and Turner make up one of the best guard classes in the country.
"We have a lot of guys working hard," said Perry. "All of them came out of high school highly recruited . . . I think they all have natural talent. It's all about coming in and putting it on the court."
The Wildcats start official practice Friday and will prepare for one of its toughest non-conference schedules in recent memory. Arizona will play six teams — St. John's, San Diego State, Florida, Clemson, Gonzaga and Oakland — that made the NCAA Tournament last season. The Wildcats also have the potential to play Texas A&M, also a tournament team, in the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer in Madison Square Garden.
"I worry about our non-conference schedule a little bit," Miller said. "To me, we're really pushing the envelope in terms of tough games."
But for the players, they said challenging themselves early could only help later in the season.
"That's exactly what coach wants to do. He wants to prepare us for Pac-12 and March," said Lavender. " And it's a very smart deal that he does. A lot of people don't understand what he does, but it's so smart."
When it comes to conference play, the Wildcats look to challenge veteran teams like California and Washington as they try to collect back-to-back conference titles. The Wildcats will play Arizona State, UCLA, USC, Colorado, Utah, Washington State and Washington twice in conference play and will play at California and Stanford, and host Oregon and Oregon State.
Although the Arizona is grounded in players with experience, Miller said the evolution of the Pac-12 might present a challenge in 2011-12.
"I do worry about the conference season, but no one will say in March that we didn't challenge ourselves," Miller said.