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Arizona Wildcats basketball season-opener: Five things to watch

What will surprise coach Sean Miller this season? Stay tuned... Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

What will surprise coach Sean Miller this season? Stay tuned… Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Who let the college basketball season start so early?

With the Arizona Wildcats football team on the eve of a big Homecoming game against 16th-ranked UCLA, the No. 6 men’s basketball team tips off its season tonight against Cal Poly (8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

And they’re off and running with five games in 12 days … which could then lead right into the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals in New York City and a potential juicy championship game vs. Duke.

Let’s get started. Here are five things to watch tonight and through the early part of the schedule (we’ll avoid making this Aaron Gordon, Aaron Gordon, Aaron Gordon, Aaron Gordon, Aaron Gordon):

1. Sean Miller’s comfort ‘zone’

He clings to his man-to-man pack-line defense, sometimes stubborn to a fault, but he’s been dropping hints for months about changes. Or at least tweaks. Depends on what day you get him.

In August, he talked about turning the heat up to 11, unleashing a full-court press and traps and generally taking a more aggressive approach than his version of the pack-line, which isn’t known to be a jump-into-the-passing-lane kind of outfit.

But at his team’s Media Day in September, he backed off that rhetoric a bit. And in the exhibition game against Augustana, he says his team played some 1-3-1 zone, which was news to guard Nick Johnson, who shrugged his shoulders and said Tuesday, “We haven’t played in any zone.”


What it sounds like is that Miller probably has a few defensive surprises in store — which players were not authorized to talk about — and, hey, it’s all good.

The Cats are teeming with length and athleticism. They can force the issue whenever they want, change their looks, and be one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Miller will use it all to his advantage — exactly how, we’ll soon see.

2. T.J. McConnell’s defense

Yes, he’s the true point guard Miller has lacked at Arizona — and that will be refreshing — but I’m more excited to see McConnell create havoc on defense. He and Johnson should rival any backcourt in the country when it comes to steals and locking-down opposing guards.

“I call him ‘My little bulldog,’” Johnson said of McConnell.

“He’s so gritty and he gets on the floor … he’s going to be great for me. I like to get steals and press up on defense, and it’s good to have another guy in the backcourt who wants to do that.”

3. The rotation

Miller says he wants to keep a tight rotation, probably eight deep. Not everyone can play the minutes they want to play.

Perhaps the coach will be more lax early in the season, especially with a few of these games potentially reaching blowout city, but the evolution of the rotation will be fascinating to see … even more so when big man Zach Peters is ready to play.

We know freshman wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is one of the guys off the bench. Post player Matt Korcheck is the only reserve big right now. At guard, opportunity knocks on sophomore Gabe York’s door. How will those backup minutes be split between him and senior guard Jordin Mayes?

York focused on his defense in the offseason and can be the kind of zone-busting shooter the Cats need.

“He has a real pivotal part of this year’s team, because he can shoot the basketball and he can score,” Miller said. “You put him out there with our big guys and a point guard and he’s going to get open shots. There’s no question he can knock them down.”

Let the auditions begin.

“It may take a while for us to really hit our stride and figure out what groups of players can do what, how well we play under pressure,” Miller said.

“It’s going to take certainly a couple of weeks of games. I would like to think that as we get into early December we have a better feel and, no question, once we get through the entire non-conference season, I think we’ll have a firm grasp of who we are — not only because of the length of time, but the kinds of teams we’re going to play.”

4. He touched the dribbler!

College basketball’s crackdown on the hand-checking rules — predicted to be hated by players and coaches — are expected to help scoring while increasing the number of fouls.

“It’s something we’re coaching and working on,” Miller said.

How far will the officials go? Miller agrees that putting your hand on the dribbler to impede his progress deserves to be a foul. Sometimes, he adds, just in the natural course of defensive movement, a defender might touch the dribbler with his hand.

Foul? Not a foul?

“I think the really good officials are going to say, ‘I’m not supposed to call that, because if I start calling that, then we’re going to create almost a different sport.”

5. OK, Aaron Gordon

Is he equipped to be a small forward? How much will he play at power forward?

Who cares? Miller basically says labels are for losers. Gordon is a forward, period, who can defend at either spot and he is who he is — a rebounder, dunker, scorer, slasher, one-man fast break, ball of energy who won’t be wearing an Arizona uniform for too long.


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