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Behind Enemy Lines: Arizona Wildcats

How do the folks in Tucson feel about their squad?

NCAA Basketball: Stanford at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

After hard-fought victories against Nicholls State & Grand Canyon, the 2-0 Illini will square off with old friend Arizona. Tip-off from Tucson is 8:00 p.m. Central time on the Pac-12 Network. The Wildcats are 1-0 following a win against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks.

Arizona is coming off a very disappointing 2018-2019 season but have a retooled roster stacked with young talent and future pros. For some insight on the Cats I caught up with Ryan Kelapire from TCR’s sister site, Arizona Desert Swarm.

Arizona is a program that always has high expectations. Are you satisfied with Sean Miller’s results so far?

No. Arizona had a terrific two-year stretch from 2013 to 2015, but it has only won two NCAA Tournament games the past four years, including two first-round exits, which is inexcusable considering the type of recruits it brings in. If you remember, Arizona lost in the first round when it had eventual No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and a solid supporting cast.

That said, there is something to be said for Arizona being a perennial top-25 team and Pac-12 title contender. The 2018-19 season was the only exception and that was because of some odd circumstances.

So, could Arizona find someone better than Miller? Yes. Could they do a lot worse? For sure.

The Pac-12 was lousy last year. It still baffles me that the Wildcats went just 17-15. What happened?

It’s pretty simple: Arizona lost its entire starting five from the year prior and its 2018 recruiting class fell apart when the news of the federal investigation into college basketball went public. So instead of bringing in a top-10 class like usual, Arizona had to scramble to put together a recruiting class that wound up ranking 22nd in the country. They did add a pair of grad transfers in Ryan Luther (Pittsburgh) and Justin Coleman (Samford) to round out the roster, but neither were considered to be guys who would be high-level starters at the major-conference level.

In short, the team was lacking the kind of talent it usually has and its record accurately reflected that. Expectations were always tame. This season is much different. Arizona’s highly-touted freshman class is supposed to bring them back to prominence.

As of now, Devonaire Doutrive is still suspended. How does his absence affect Arizona?

It’s hard to say. He didn’t get a ton of minutes last year as a freshman, but he is someone that fans adore because he always plays with a ton of energy. Last season, that mostly meant slashing and rebounding. He was pretty raw defensively and as a scorer, particularly when it came to his jump shot. However, Miller has said Doutrive is one of Arizona’s most improved players, and the position he plays—the 2—is Arizona’s weakest, so the Wildcats will have a ridiculous starting five when he returns if that proclamation turns out to be true. But if he hasn’t improved that much, then he’s best suited as a pesky energy player off the bench.

You didn’t ask if he will be playing Sunday, but the answer is I don’t know. It wouldn’t be surprising. Arizona has handed out some very brief suspensions before.

Even without Doutrive this Wildcats roster is absolutely loaded. Who are some of the players Illinois fans should be watching for?

Based on how the season opener went, you should be wary of freshman Zeke Nnaji, who had 20 points in 20 minutes. He is 6-foot-11, athletic and skilled. He showed he can score with both hands on the low block, slide his feet defensively, challenge shots at the rim, run in transition, and shoot from all three levels. He was a highly-touted recruit (top 40) but not quite at the level of fellow freshmen Josh Green and Nico Mannion, who were McDonald’s All-Americans.

Mannion is a 6-foot-3 point guard with a well-rounded skill set and springy athleticism. A lot of people are projecting him to be a lottery pick in April.

Green, his former travel teammate, is 6-foot-6 with superb athleticism and solid length. His defense has been pretty impressive so far. So has his penchant for making plays in transition. He isn’t a great shooter, though, and is a straight-line driver so sometimes it’s a struggle for him to produce in the halfcourt.

What are some of the flaws of this team? Anything you’re concerned about moving forward?

3-point shooting was a big problem last season but it could be a strength of this year’s team. The roster is so different, so who really knows? Grad transfers Stone Gettings (Cornell) and Max Hazzard (UC Irvine) both shot in the high 30s at their previous schools and Mannion is a solid shooter as well. Fifth-year senior Dylan Smith has been starting at the 2 with Doutrive out and he is maddingly inconsistent from deep, though never afraid to let shots fly and can hit the occasional hot streak.

Since it’s too early to know what to make of this revamped team, the biggest concern in this game is how they will fare against a major-conference team for the first time. Arizona starts three freshmen and the aforementioned transfers both used to play at mid-majors, so it could take time to adjust to Big Ten talent. It’s really important that this game is Tucson because the home crowd should help the Wildcats navigate through some of those growing pains.

Where were you on March 26th, 2005?

Did something important happen on that day? Surely you are not referencing an Elite Eight game that never happened, right?

Check out our convo with Arizona Desert Swarm here.