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Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Summer Buzz: Arizona Wildcats

By Eamonn Brennan

Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. Insider For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Arizona.

Derrick Williams finally got his due.

Williams was arguably the best player in the country during the 2010-11 season. He was, with the exception of Hofstra's Charles Jenkins, the most efficient star in all of college hoops. Nobody but Jenkins took as many shots while simultaneously maintaining Williams' otherworldly efficiency. His effective field goal percentage (65.0) and true shooting percentage (69.0) ranked him sixth and fourth in the country, respectively.

Derrick Williams
Arizona will have to make up for the loss of Lamont Jones (left) and Derrick Williams.
And Williams didn't just score. He also rebounded on both ends of the floor, drew fouls on opponents at one of the highest rates in the nation, and contributed length and athleticism on the defensive end.

For a variety of reasons -- a lack of national profile heading into the season, the whole West Coast/Pac-10 TV thing, and so on -- casual college hoops fans (and NBA scouts, for that matter) spent much of the season sleeping on Williams. It took a torrid run through the postseason (including a pretty much flawless 32-point, 13-rebound performance in a dominating win over No. 1-seed Duke in the Sweet 16) and a spate of talented forwards deciding to stay in school, for Williams to finally rocket up draft boards.

Fortunately for Williams, the final appraisal was the best one. The dude was a monster. He was drafted accordingly. The end.

Unfortunately for Arizona, the Wildcats now face the prospect of replacing their hyperefficient scoring and rebounding machine, and they have to do so in one fell swoop. Traditional stat lines can be deceiving -- you can't control for tempo in a box score, duh -- but this one is not. Go ahead, click on it. It's Arizona's 2011 statistics, and if you take even a cursory glance, you'll notice that no single Wildcat averaged even half the points per game Williams did. The closest was Lamont "MoMo" Jones. If you double Jones' points per game (9.7), you get one tenth of a percentage point less (19.4) than Williams's (19.5). This is not the most scientific piece of data ever unearthed, but you get the point.

Making this worse, of course, is Jones' decision to transfer to Iona this offseason. He said he wanted to transfer home to New York to be closer to family, and he couldn't go to St. John's because of an NCAA rule prohibiting players from playing for their old AAU coaches. But his transfer likely had something to do with Arizona's incoming backcourt and the star power Sean Miller is hoping two freshmen can immediately bring.

The first is Josiah Turner, the No. 3-ranked point guard in the class of 2011. The second is Nick Johnson, the No. 5-ranked shooting guard. Landing either one of these two would have been a boon to Arizona's long-term project (which, after an Elite Eight appearance, can hardly be qualified as "rebuilding"). Landing both of them gives the Cats what should be the best freshman guard tandem in the country. Having Jones around would have helped -- veteran presence is always nice, right? -- but it's not clear he's better than either of Miller's incoming talents.

The rest of the team won't be quite so young, but youth is still the defining characteristic. The rest of Arizona's seventh-ranked recruiting class includes two intriguing power forwards, Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson, both of whom are power forwards, and both of whom are ESPNU top 100 prospects. Neither is likely to have the same immediate impact as Turner or Johnson, but both should compete for minutes early in their careers and, at the very least, provide some depth to an obviously depleted frontcourt.

The rest of that frontcourt comprises returning role players who played off Williams last season. The most likely breakout candidate is 6-foot-6 forward Solomon Hill, whose athleticism allows him to overcome size disadvantages in the low block. Hill could feasibly transition to a more traditional small forward role; he isn't a great shooter, but he's capable -- he made 17 of his 48 3-point attempts last season -- and his potential defensive versatility is an asset against bigger guards and/or smaller forwards.

There are other returners here. Kyle Fogg is solid at the 2. Seven-foot center Kyryl Natyazhko and 6-11 forward Alex Jacobson both bring valuable size (which could come in handy against, say, UCLA's bruising front line). Junior small forward Kevin Parrom is the best shooter on the team; he posted an offensive rating of 122.5 in 2011. Guard Jordin Mayes and big man Jesse Perry are also back for their second seasons in Tucson.

Miller can choose between these, and a handful of other minor contributors last season, as he begins to fill out the 2011-12 Arizona lineup. Whatever configuration of players he chooses -- some mix of old and new, experience and talent, and so on -- two things are certain:

One: Derrick Williams isn't walking through that door. Arizona's offense may be very good again. But if it is, it will look entirely different from the 2011 version. It is likely to be more perimeter-oriented, more varied, and less interior-oriented.

And two: Arizona will either be good or great this season. But even if "good" is the end result, the future -- with this top-notch 2011 class and another brilliant one on the way in 2012 -- is looking very bright.

Williams is gone, and he'll be impossible to replace. But Arizona basketball is in very good shape. On that point, there seems to be little debate.