TUCSON – A different atmosphere surrounds the Arizona men’s basketball program this season.
Following a disappointing first-round NCAA Tournament defeat to Buffalo that ended their 2017-18 run, the Wildcats enter a new season with a fresh look.
All five starters from last season have departed, including Deandre Ayton, who the Phoenix Suns took with the overall No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft over the summer. Arizona’s five starters last season accounted for 81.8 percent of the team’s points, 77.2 percent of its assists and 73.7 percent of the club’s rebounds.
Looming, too, is the dark cloud of a federal investigation into alleged corruption in college basketball, which ensnared former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson, casting a shadow over the program.
Entering his 10th season with the program, coach Sean Miller is the person tasked with navigating the change and turmoil.
“It’s a work in progress. We believe in the things we do,” said Miller, whose team opens its season Nov. 7. “We had a summer program that, I think, we really tried to take advantage of, more access, more time we were able to spend together with our guys. And we went from there.”
The NCAA implemented new rules that allows each team to practice up to four hours a day, an increase from two hours a day. For a team with as many new players as Arizona has this year, Miller took full advantage of the added time.
“I think the familiarity we were able to build over the summer is helpful when you lose as many as we’ve lost, player-wise,” he said. “Even the returners have a different role this year and because of that, I think the access we had over the summer has been helpful.”
Miller admitted this is a much larger turnover of players than he has experienced in the past.
“We have a long way to go,” Miller said. “Every team does at this time of year, but in our case, I think maybe a bit further because of just so much wholesale change. It’s something I have not experienced and it’s almost like taking over a new program.”
Despite placing fourth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, Arizona is unranked in the Associated Press preseason poll for the first time since the 2010-11 season, which was Miller’s second with the Wildcats.
Despite the program’s rich history of success, Miller said expectations are different this year.
“Rightfully so,” he said. “It’s up to us to be better than people on the outside predict us to be. We’re going to work really hard. I think we have a unique combination of new players because not everybody that’s joined us is a freshman.”Forward Ira Lee, who averaged 10.2 minutes in the 27 games he appeared in last season, believes the Wildcats can play more freely not having to bear the weight of great expectations.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Lee said. “No one expects us to do anything really big, so that’s going to make us to go even harder.”
However, redshirt junior guard Dylan Smith didn’t buy the narrative of playing more freely with lesser expectations.
“The only thing I’m going to say about that is that I’ve been here for three years and Miller hasn’t changed, so it’s going to be the same,” he said. “It’s still going to be intense. Some of us are going to have bigger roles with all the people departing, but it’s going to be the same thing. Miller is going to expect us to play as hard as we can and go out and try to win every game and compete.”
Smith, who averaged 4.3 points per game in 34 games, is Arizona’s top returning scorer. And with eight starts, he also is the team’s most experienced returner.
He and the other returners will look to help acclimate the newer players entering the program.
“That’s kind of my role. I’m kind of a silent leader. I’m not a cat that’s going to chase,” Smith said.
He said that entails “just making sure everyone knows something that coach Miller might not have a lot time to address, pulling them aside to make sure everyone is OK. Just being a good teammate is one of my biggest goals.”
Forward Chase Jeter is eligible to play this season after transferring from Duke. Even though he didn’t log any minutes last season, he knows what Miller wants from his team.
“I know what to expect come game time, and I know what coach expects of us,” Jeter said. “It’s kind of up to me this year to kind of make that the standard to make sure everyone is held accountable, hold myself accountable and make sure we know what we’re doing every day on and off the court.”
Miller believes Arizona’s playing style will be more traditional this season with an emphasis on transition offense.
“We don’t have the height, size and rebounding (of last season), but maybe we can make up for it by matching up better on the perimeter,” he said. “I think there’s going to be more space on the court.
“We’ve been playing with two bigs (in the past), and moving forward to have more ball-handling, more skill on the court and maybe one true big is maybe the route we’re moving.
“If that makes us play a little bit faster, then so be it.”
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