For many Wildcat fans, the start of college basketball serves as a much needed distraction from the final month of the college football season. In 2019, this is as true as ever as Arizona has lost four-straight kickoffs by a combined total score of 189-110. Of course, the four-game losing streak comes on the heels of four-straight victories where there was actually some tempered optimism in the air. However, after the firing of Defensive Coordinator Marcel Yates, a 58-36 homecoming loss to Oregon State, and the unexpected slide of one-time Heisman hopeful Khalil Tate, basketball season feels like the warmth of a campfire on a cool autumn night.
While Sean Miller and his squad must wait another day, there will be opening tips happening all over the country starting today. The bonanza begins with No. 16 Baylor hosting Central Arkansas in the morning, highlighted by back-to-back marquee games featuring the nation’s top ranked teams in the State Farm Champions Classic in NYC. The early tip pits No. 3 Duke and No. 4 Kansas at 7 p.m. EST. The second tip at Madison Square Garden is between No. 1 Michigan State and No. 2 Kentucky.
Five Pac-12 teams also play on Tuesday. No. 16 Oregon hosts Fresno State. Joining the Ducks in opening day action include USC, California, Utah, and Oregon State. The conference game I’ll be watching is Utah at Nevada on CBS Sports Network at 8:30 p.m. MST.
On Wednesday, No. 21 Arizona hosts in-state foe Northern Arizona on Pac-12 Networks, followed by Long Beach State at UCLA. Stanford hosts Montana.
A season ago, the Pac-12 got off to a horrendous start that never really improved. Collectively, conference teams combined to have the lowest non-conference record of any Power 5 league in history. Hence, it’s worth paying attention to what is happening around the league over the next two months rather than laser focusing just on your favorite school.
For now, though, we can certainly focus on Arizona.
The Wildcat roster has eight new faces, with all but one, Nevada transfer Jordan Brown, eligible to play this season. This should be good news for a team that struggled last year, finishing 17-13 overall and just 8-9 in conference.
Senior Chase Jeter and junior Ira Lee provide stability in the frontcourt while McDonald’s All-American freshmen Nico Mannion and Josh Green show promise in the backcourt. Surrounding them is a plethora of talented players with size and quickness that was absent a year ago.
The question is how quickly can this team come together on the court?
If last Friday’s exhibition against Chico State is an indication, it could be a while. The Wildcats played hard and chemistry on the floor definitely improved from the first half to the second half, but the visitors were in the game for the full 40 minutes. All it would have taken is a couple of late-game turnovers or a rash of missed free throws in the final two minutes for things to go south quickly. Fortunately, Arizona did execute late, and there’s definitely a calming feeling with guys like Mannion, Kentucky transfer Jemarl Baker, and UC Irvine graduate transfer bringing the ball up the court under pressure.
Arizona will play six times before Thanksgiving, highlighted by home games against Illinois on Sunday and New Mexico State on November 17. The Aggies are the prohibitive favorite to win the Western Athletic Conference this year, and are fresh off a 30-5 season that ended in a 78-77 loss to Auburn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Illinois is predicted to finish in the bottom half of the Big 10. However, expect the Illini to be much approved under second year coach Brad Underwood, who has taken a military recruit style to breaking his team down before building them back up his way.
While many fans will be looking forward to marquee non-conference games between No. 16 Baylor (Dec. 7) and No. 8 Gonzaga (Dec. 14), it’ll be interesting to see how the club develops between now and then during a December slate that also includes a neutral site game against St. John’s.
Will newcomers Zeke Nnaji, Christian Koloko, and Stone Gettings provide depth in the frontcourt? Will Hazard and Baker add versatility and much-needed scoring prowess on the perimeter? Will Devonair Doutrive (suspended indefinitely for team rule violation) eventually crack the starting lineup in a 3-guard set? Will Dylan Smith mature into a reliable defender and knockdown shooter? Will Arizona be able to avoid the types of off-court distractions that harassed the program last year? Will the NCAA stay away, or instead launch a probe that could derail postseason hopes? Will a program that hasn’t been to the Final Four since the 2001 title game finally snap the Elite Eight curse and punch its ticket to the promised land of college basketball?
I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but starting tomorrow the answers will begin to come to light as the 2019-2020 men’s basketball season officially begins.