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2014-15 Season Preview: Arizona

The Wildcats are poised to make another national championship tournament run and are the favorites to win the Pac-12

T.J. McConnell is the leader of this Arizona squad once again.
T.J. McConnell is the leader of this Arizona squad once again.
Jeff Gross

Last Season: Arizona seemed unbeatable as they reeled off 21 straight wins and the undefeated chants gradually became louder. Then, Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending injury. Then, they lost three of their next 10. And after establishing their dominance in the country and the conference, Arizona seemed beatable heading into the NCAA Tournament. And they were. The Wildcats fell to Wisconsin 64-63 in overtime, one win shy of a Final Four appearance. Even with the Ashley injury, Arizona was still the best defensive team in the country as they allowed 88.5 points per 100 possessions. They were also a top 20 offensive team and scored 114.7 points per 100 possessions.

Key Losses: They lost top 5 NBA Draft pick Aaron Gordon and Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson. Johnson was the go-to-guy when the Wildcats needed points and a lockdown defender. Gordon was the hardest worker on the floor, an explosive athlete and one of the anchors for Arizona's swarming defense. This would seem to be a deafening blow to most teams, but Sean Miller has plenty of returning and incoming talent to make up for those losses. There's a chance the defense won't be as demoralizing as last season with their departures, especially Gordon's, but there shouldn't be that much of a drop off.

Notable Returning Players: Starters Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson look to form one of the best frontcourts in the country. Ashley has the ability to stretch the floor and shot 42 percent on two-point jumpers last season. He averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 22 games and although it is a small sample size, was 11-for-29 on threes last season. Tarczewski mans the paint and the seven-footer averaged 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He had the second best block rate on the team and improved his foul rate last season only committing 3.6 per 40 minutes.

Hollis-Jefferson is the most versatile of the group and is a relentless attacker who thrives in transition. 45 percent of his shots came at the rim last season and he made 73 percent of those. Hollis-Jefferson was tied for the best offensive rebounding rate and had the best block rate on the team. His only weakness is his shot; he was 36-for-124 on two-point jumpers and 2-for-10 on threes last season.

T.J. McConnell is the most important player for the Wildcats and will be the point guard for consecutive years at Arizona for the first time since Sean Miller took over. McConnell's Pac-12 leading 3.01 assist-to-turnover ratio proves he rarely makes mistakes. And he is a fly you can't seem to swat on defense and constantly pesters the opponent and led the Wildcats with 1.7 steals per game.

Gabe York returns as one of Arizona's best three-point shooters. His 38.5 three-point percentage was second best on the team. 67 percent of York's shots were from beyond the arc and his outside shooting was a reason he was featured in the lineup more than Hollis-Jefferson down the stretch after Ashley's injury. Elliot Pitts will look to build on his freshman year after seeing more minutes late last season. Pitts shot 39 percent from three last year and is a versatile 6-foot-5 guard that should be a rotation player this season.

Key Newcomers: McDonald's All-American and 2014 FIBA U18 Tournament MVP Stanley Johnson is arguably the best player on the team and hasn't played a minute yet. Johnson is an athletic freak, excels in the open-court and is a physical player that can rebound and score in the post. He could be the driving force for Arizona's national championship run.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Craig Victor, and Dusan Ristic are notable incoming recruits for the Wildcats as well. Jackson-Cartwright is undersized at 5-foot-8, but he has the quickness and ability to change speeds to stand out on the court. Victor is a 6-foot-7 forward that can score in the paint with a variety of moves and Ristic is a seven-footer who knows how to use his size in the post.

Notable Non-Conference Games: The Wildcats will take on Missouri in the Maui Invitational and then face either Purdue or Kansas State. Since they likely will make it to the finals of the tournament, they'll face either BYU, San Diego St. or Pittsburgh as well. Their toughest test comes in early December when they play Gonzaga at the McKale Center. Both teams could easily make the Final Four which makes this one of the better non-conference games of the year. To finish up, Sean Miller's team will face Michigan and UNLV, a pair of teams that should make the NCAA Tournament.

Conference Stretch to Look at: At the end of the conference season, Arizona will host UCLA and then travel to the mountains to take on Colorado and Utah. Arizona shouldn't have trouble with many games this year in the Pac-12, but UCLA has challenged the Wildcats the past couple of years. And Arizona narrowly beat Utah in overtime last season and lost to Colorado the year before when they were at the Coors Event Center.

Best-Case: Arizona enters conference play undefeated and suffers one or two upsets on the road in the Pac-12, but wins the regular season title and conference tournament. They get the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and Sean Miller brings that coveted national championship back to Tucson.

Worst-Case: Arizona loses in the Maui Invitational and at UNLV in non-conference play. They win the Pac-12 Title, but can't seem to separate from the rest of the pack throughout conference play. They earn a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and make their way to the Elite Eight, but Sean Miller once again can't reach the Final Four.

Projected Finish: 1st