Wildcats reloaded and ready for a deep run
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By JOHN MARSHALL
AP Basketball Writer
TUCSON, Ariz. -- A trip to the Bahamas last summer gave Arizona coach Sean Miller an early look at a team that would go on to reach the regional round of the NCAA tournament.
A recent change in NCAA rules gave Miller more time with the Wildcats this summer and, so far, he likes what he sees.
It's still early -- the first practice is more than a month away -- but the 2013-14 team has a chance to be Miller's best one yet in the desert.
"It's more about football season right now than basketball season, but I will tell you that our guys had a great summer," Miller said Tuesday from Arizona's McKale Center. "The process of winning began a long time ago and I feel like we've done a good job every day in these long summer months to become better players, a better team, a better program."
There's plenty to like.
Arizona finished 27-8 last season and reached the round of 16 before being knocked out by Ohio State.
Unlike last season, they'll have a true point guard, adding T.J. McDonnell, a heady, gritty player who practiced with the team last season while sitting out as a transfer from Duquesne.
Miller, as has been his custom in the desert, added another highly heralded recruiting class as well, adding 6-foot-8 Aaron Gordon and 6-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, two of the top incoming freshmen in the country.
That's experience, smarts and talent to go with a hardworking approach fostered by their coach.
"I like our team's ability to improve and to a man, we've had that mindset, really since we lost to Ohio State," Miller said.
Gordon could be the key cog in Arizona's chances of making a deep run this season.
Long, athletic and filled with energy, he has a chance to be a star right out of the gate, already projected by some to be a lottery pick if he leaves Tucson after one season.
Gordon led San Jose Archbishop Mitty High School to two California state titles, was MVP of the FIBA Under-19 World Championships this summer and has shown a knack for picking up things quickly.
"He's really a hungry, willing learner," Miller said. "He works hard at the game and wants to get better at all those things he knows he needs to. We're excited about Aaron. We're excited about all our freshman, but in particular it's great to see somebody who has the attitude he has and at the same time he's so talented."
Gordon could make his biggest impact on the defensive end, with Hollis-Jefferson.
Though Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson still need work on their shooting, both are willing and tenacious defenders, with long arms and an athleticism that can create havoc along the perimeter and at the basket.
They'll join a team that already has some pretty good defensive players.
Johnson developed into one of the Pac-12's best perimeter defenders as a sophomore last season, Tarczewski is a shot-altering force inside and Ashley can guard a multitude of positions with his long and athletic body.
Now, with Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson in the mix, Miller can mix defenses up, adding full-court pressure and traps to his man-to-man pressure to take advantage of the Wildcats' athleticism.
"The length and athleticism of a lot of other players, I would hope that we could point to this being the best defensive team that we've had during my time here," Miller said. "It's always about putting your talent in the best position to be successful and I think adjusting to our team's length and athleticism is something we want to take advantage."
The Wildcats will be able to play defense, but their chances of a deep March run may hinge on the ability to hit shots from the perimeter.
Arizona went through stretches last season where it struggled from the perimeter and outside shooting has been a focal point during offseason workouts.
The Wildcats have plenty of good shooters -- Johnson, McConnell, sophomore Gabe York, freshman Elliott Pitts -- but Miller didn't want to take any chances, having his players hoist up one shot after another during the summer.
"Our perimeter shooting is something we have to continue to address and really work on," Miller said. "I will tell you, I don't think there's a college basketball program of the 347 that has shot more basketballs than we have this summer. We have put all eggs in that basket to gain shots, gain reps and I believe we've improved that as much as we could in a summer."
Start making those shots during the regular season and the Wildcats could be headed toward a long season, one that reaches into April.
They seem to have everything else in place.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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