Arizona basketball has put together one of the more memorable seasons in recent history. The big recruiting class, the fifth year transfer, the last second victory over No. 5 Florida and the 14-0 start—it has been a lot of fun for Arizona fans.
Through the first 23 games, a lot has been learned about the team. This list counts 10 of the most important.
Coming into the 2012-13 season, the expectations for Arizona basketball were high. With a couple of returning starters, a big improvement at the point guard position and one of the best freshman classes in the country, the Wildcats were the 12th ranked team in the preseason.
Then they shot off to an incredible 14-0 mark to start the season. Their ranking soared to third in the nation and the expectations went from Pac-12 champs to national champs.
The reality is that the Wildcats' real potential lays somewhere in between those rankings. They are not one of the best two or three teams in the country, but they are firmly in the top six or seven.
With the postseason fast approaching, it will be fascinating to see how the Cats' expectations meet their reality.
As ESPN's fourth-rated prospect in the class of 2012, many Arizona fans, including myself, believed that Kaleb Tarczewski was going to be ready for takeoff. While he has been serviceable, he has not been the dominating force as hoped.
But this makes sense. Big guys not named Anthony Davis, or even Nerlens Noel, take time to develop. Getting adjusted to the size and speed of the college game takes longer for guys as big as Tarczewski. And many times, just getting comfortable with a new seven-foot body is difficult as well.
And putting extremely aspirational thinking aside, Tarczewski has played decently. When he is in the game he makes an impact, especially on the defensive side of the ball. If able to make a few adjustments on his offensive game, like getting better pre-touch post positioning, he will be a force there as well.
Tarczewski looks like a two to three year project. This is good for Arizona fans because he will likely spend his years of development in Tucson and not in the NBA.
As much as Tarczewski is a project, so are the other two big recruits. Brandon Ashley is raw. When you watch him play he looks like a ball of energy who has incredibly long arms. He goes and goes and goes, which is what makes him effective.
He is very unpolished, however. He has a pretty looking jumper, but it is very inconsistent. The power forward can play defense well, but also misses a lot of fundamental plays like a simple box-out. He is a great athlete, but is waiting to be able to fully harness or control his body. Ashley is a work in progress.
Without a doubt, I thought Grant Jerrett was the most ready for the college level. His combination of size and skill looked like a can't-miss type of contributor. However, he has actually produced the least of the big three. He has scored in double digits only three times, but laid five goose-eggs. All told he is averaging just 4.8 points and under four rebounds per contest.
With Jerrett, because I believe so much in his abilities, it is all about confidence. Now he seems uncomfortable and rushed nearly every time he touches the ball. It looks like he does not know his role on the team and where he should be making his presence felt. As his career moves forward, this will change. But it will not be this year.
Again, the good thing for Arizona fans is that this trio of projects will play at least another season calling McKale Center home.
If there is anything that the game against California taught Arizona, it is that any team in the Pac-12 is capable of pulling off a victory against any other team. California entered that game with a 13-9 record and 5-5 in the conference. The Bears are a mediocre team at best. They were also playing at McKale Center against a team which would have risen to second or third in the country with a win.
But Arizona played sloppy and like the game was over from the opening minutes. They refused to put California away when there were many chances to do so. And Allen Crabbe just went off. He was unbelievable.
It goes to show that there is talent scattered all over the conference. To let down in any of these games against a bad team, even when playing at home, can result in a loss.
As the season progresses, and if the Cats want to gain on of the highest seeds in the NCAA tournament, the focus in the "easy games" must be there as solidly as the games against UCLA and Colorado.
Nick Johnson can be one of the most exciting players in the nation. Some of his dunks this season have been awesome. He has improved his shooting ability in all facets (45.1 FG%, 74.7 FT%, 34.7 3PT%) and looks so much more confident this season. Putting it all together, he has what it takes to put up 20 on any given night. And he has played well, putting up double figures 17 times this season.
But so often, after a great game, Johnson will put together a series of bad games. For example, in his last three games he has scored six, two and then seven points.
The reason why? In those three games he took 18 total shots. For a guy with his talent, this is not acceptable. For Arizona to succeed come March, Johnson must find ways to get up more than six a game. Arizona needs him to be a threat every time he touches the ball. At times he seems to fade away. This needs to stop for the Wildcats to win big.
During Arizona's 14-0 start, it was undeniable that there was something in the air. Whether it was fate, magic, destiny or just luck, the Wildcats pulled out some incredibly improbable victories.
The comeback train started against Southern Miss, when the Wildcats were down 11 points in the first half. They fought back to win by eight. Two games later, in one of the most epic games the McKale Center has seen in years, the Wildcats played Florida. Down double digits for much of the game, and six points with just over a minute remaining, Arizona beat Florida on a great final-second shot by Mark Lyons.
Continuing the theme, the Wildcats trailed San Diego State by eight points in the second half. They won that game on an awesome blocked-shot by Nick Johnson. Moving along to the very next game, Colorado was up 16 points halfway through the second half, up 10 points with 3:14 left and eight points with 1:44. Somehow (well...with the help of blind officials) the Cats came back to win the game in OT.
The run of comebacks was simply unbelievable. Then the Wildcats went to Eugene. Despite the fact they were down 14 points in the second half, Arizona looked to have Oregon just where they wanted them. As the comeback started, it just seemed certain that the magic was going to take over again. It didn't; Arizona lost its first game of the season.
Against UCLA they tried their winning formula of "get down by double-digits and then come back at the very end" once more, but a 19-3 hole to start the game was too much to overcome.
Moving forward, the Wildcats need to take the lessons learned by the Pac-12 season and realize they are not good enough to get down to good teams and come back. The magic stopped after the Colorado game and if this happens in the NCAA tournament, it will mark Arizona's exit.
Solomon Hill is quietly having another great season in Tucson. His averages don't jump off the page, but he does just about everything well. He is averaging 14 points (second on the team), 5.3 rebounds (third), 2.6 assists (third), 1.2 steals (second), is shooting over 40 percent from three-point range (first) and 47 percent from the field (fourth). Naming a more complete player would be a difficult task.
Hill also leads this team on the court. When Arizona bogs down on offense, it is almost always Hill who finds a way to score. Whether it is a drive to the basket, a three pointer or his new and beautiful turn-around jumper, Hill makes it work. Defensively he can be put to task against nearly any player, one through four, and be effective.
When all is said and done, Hill will have scored around 1500 points, grabbed 800 rebounds, dished out 300 assists and won nearly 100 games (currently at 89). While he goes about his business quietly, he has turned out to be one of the greats in the history of Arizona basketball.
After the nasty brawl between Cincinnati and Xavier last season, Mark Lyons' ability to lead was justifiably questioned. Then he had a less than amicable split with Xavier and his character was even more in doubt.
So obviously there were questions when he decided to transfer to Arizona. Would he be able to fit in? Would he be a leader or a distraction? Would he continue to put himself before his teammates?
Lyons has answered these questions in resounding fashion; he has fit in perfectly. The 6'1" guard has led with dignity and played with reckless abandon. He has put the team ahead of himself and has been anything but a distraction. He came to Arizona and immediately did what would endear himself to all Wildcat fans: Win.
His play has single-handedly won several games this season. He knocked down the game-winner against Florida, and then calmly sank two free throws to put Arizona ahead against San Diego State. He has taken what would have been a good Arizona team and made them borderline great.
Lyons has answered all his critics.
Looking at the Arizona roster, one would expect them to average 80 points per game, to shoot 50 percent from the field and close to 40 percent from beyond the arc. One would think they would be one of the best offensive teams in the country with scorers like Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson, Mark Lyons, Kevin Parrom, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski. It would seem that with the abundance of both size and shooting, offense would be a foregone conclusion, but it is not.
It is definitely not.
To name a few offensive stats, Arizona ranks 87th in field-goal percentage, 70th in three-point percentage, 30th in points per game, 32nd in offensive efficiency, 108th in assists per game and 156th in turnovers per game.
These are some of the most core offensive statistics in existence and Arizona is just not that good at any of them. It is plain to see on the court as well. For substantial periods of time in nearly every game, it looks as though there is no place to turn to get the ball in the basket.
Thankful, at many junctures, Mark Lyons, Nick Johnson or Solomon Hill has come to the rescue, but often it is not soon enough. Moving forward, having learned that the offense is an issue, these three guys need to be constantly aggressive. This is never an issue for Lyons, but both Johnson and Hill need to get into the game early and continue throughout.
If they can stay on the attack, Arizona is hard to stop. If not, the stagnation will continue.
With Arizona finding baskets more difficult to come by than would have been expected, turnovers only compound their offensive woes. They average 13.3 turns per game, ranking them, as said in the last slide, 156th in the nation.
This has not been all that much of a problem obviously, as their 20-3 record declares quite resoundingly. But this is because there is such a great talent disparity between the Wildcats and the teams they play.
Come March, this will not be the case. The teams they might face in the second and third rounds will have players to match what Arizona does. Each possession will matter and 13.3 turnovers will result in a loss.
Turnovers are a challenge that can be overcome. The problem is that it is much more than halfway into the season and things have not turned around. The last three games have been better, with totals of nine, eleven and nine, but that followed a 17-turnover outing against Washington. The turnover bug looks to have become habitual with the Wildcats.
Looking down the line, this trend is going to haunt the Wildcats against a good team in a close game. It is something that should have been corrected long ago, and because it has not, Arizona won't reach the Final Four expectations many had for it.