After a dismal year featuring a first-round NIT exit, Arizona is set to bounce back in a big way this season. The Wildcats boast a sensational freshman class as well as Mark Lyons, one of the top transfers in the nation.
However, Arizona is far from the only Pac-12 team looking to recover from a down year behind an influx of young talent. With UCLA thinking Final Four and Colorado looking to defend its conference tourney title, Arizona will be facing some serious opposition in its bid for the league crown.
Herein, a look at the 10 biggest games on the Wildcat schedule as they look to ride their new-look roster to Pac-12 supremacy and a possible Final Four bid of their own.
The stars of last year’s 25-win 49er squad have graduated, but Long Beach State is still not a team to be taken lightly. A slew of transfers will provide both size and talent enough to make Arizona work for an early-season home win.
Both 6’9” Dan Jennings (formerly of West Virginia) and 6’7” Tony Freeland (ex-DePaul) will provide frontcourt muscle to bang with the taller Wildcats.
In the backcourt, a familiar face—Arizona State transfer Keala King—will headline the 49ers’ offensive weapons, though it’s unlikely he’ll score enough points to swing a road upset here.
A freshman-laden lineup like Arizona’s is always in danger of a bad loss away from home, and the most dangerous early road test the Wildcats will face comes at Clemson.
Littlejohn Coliseum is never an easy place to win, even with the Tigers likely facing a down year in 2012-13.
The big question in this matchup is whether bruising Clemson senior Devin Booker (10.5 points and seven rebounds per game last year) can clamp down on the taller Kaleb Tarczewski down low.
If the Wildcat freshmen falter, Clemson could well spring an upset, but the bet here is that veteran Mark Lyons will save the day in a close Arizona win.
The marquee game on Arizona’s non-conference schedule sees SEC powerhouse Florida visit the McKale Center.
There should be plenty of offensive fireworks, especially in the not-unlikely event that the Wildcats’ Mark Lyons finds himself in a shooting contest with Gator star Kenny Boynton.
Up front, physical Florida upperclassmen Patric Young and Erik Murphy will make life very difficult for the inexperienced Arizona big men.
If Nick Johnson or Solomon Hill get hot on offense, they could save the Wildcats, but otherwise, the Gators have a great chance to score a signature road win here.
They may be big fish from a small pond, but it’s never a good idea to look past Oral Roberts.
The serial bracket-busters won 27 games a season ago, and the team's fast-paced, long-range attack has its share of weapons returning from that squad.
The 6'5" senior Warren Niles will be the ringleader after draining 63 treys last year, but he’ll have plenty of help from the likes of Mikey Manghum (.422 shooting from beyond the arc).
The Arizona big men will need to take over this game, but that won’t be a trivial task against 6’9”, 245-pound Damen Bell-Holter and 6’8” Steven Roundtree inside.
Arizona’s Pac-12 schedule opens with a bang against a Colorado squad that looks to be even stronger than last year’s surprise Pac-12 tournament champs.
What had been an undersized group becomes one of the conference’s premier frontcourts with the addition of 6’10” freshman Josh Scott.
With Scott’s scoring punch and the rebounding ability of junior star Andre Roberson (11.1 boards a game, fifth in the country a year ago), the Buffs won’t be intimidated by Arizona’s size or skill down low.
The pressure will be on the Wildcats’ backcourt, especially Mark Lyons, to control the momentum and provide enough of a scoring edge to keep Arizona from starting 0-1 in conference play.
The Wildcats get to host the first of their two high-stakes showdowns with the conference favorites from UCLA.
If quick-handed Mark Lyons can keep the pressure on Anderson and backup Larry Drew II, that will go a long way toward slowing down the high-powered UCLA attack.
With home-court advantage on their side in a battle of two young teams, look for the Wildcats to have the edge here, especially in the pivotal freshman-power forward matchup of Tony Parker versus Grant Jerrett.
Even on the road, the defending NIT champs from Stanford aren’t going to be pushovers for Arizona.
The dangerous backcourt of Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle (24.7 points and 5.7 assists per game between them) returns with some much-needed seasoning from last year’s postseason run.
However, Arizona should hold the advantage up front in this matchup.
The Cardinal forwards, led by juniors Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell, are a hard-working but unremarkable group, and matching up with the likes of Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett is probably beyond their capabilities.
The schedule-makers did Arizona a favor here, as it won’t have to visit Berkeley this season. Still, the Golden Bears’ imposing backcourt will provide a steep challenge for the Wildcats, even in Tucson.
Allen Crabbe, at 6'6", is one of the top returning scorers in the conference, and Nick Johnson is going to need some help to keep him from lighting up the scoreboard.
That threat is compounded by standout point guard Justin Cobbs, who will harass Mark Lyons with his defense in addition to creating plenty of offense for Cal (12.6 points and 5.0 assists a night last season).
The trip to Boulder is always a tough one for any visiting team, but the altitude isn’t the only danger for Colorado foes this season.
On their home floor, the Buffaloes' arsenal of young three-point gunners—led by Spencer Dinwiddie and his .438 long-range accuracy—can get on a roll and outscore any opponent.
Arizona’s perimeter defense is good but not overpowering, so the Wildcats may have to fight fire with fire behind Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson, who can sink plenty of treys in their own right.
If the game does turn into a shootout, don’t be surprised to see freshman reserve Gabe York play a major role for Arizona as well.
In the penultimate game of the regular season, the Pac-12 title is almost certain to be on the line in Westwood. Both the game and the championship could hinge on the performance of some of UCLA’s unheralded big men.
If the towering Wear twins (with help from Joshua Smith) can handcuff the Wildcat post players and make Arizona a jump-shooting team, the Bruins will likely come out on top.
If, on the other hand, Kaleb Tarczewski and company can establish an offensive rhythm inside, their superior skill should carry the day.