Leadership sparks Arizona’s season after battling injuries early on

To say Arizona had some question marks coming into the season would be an understatement.

After all, the school had just lost its top four scorers — including two first round picks in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, as well as first-team All-Pac-12 point guard T.J. McConnell — to the NBA.

Simply put, people weren’t exactly sure what to make of this Wildcat team following back-to-back appearances in the Elite Eight. On one hand, Sean Miller is one of the most well-respected coaches in the country for a reason. His teams often figure out a way to find success.

However, it was a completely new hierarchy of players in Tucson. Former role players stepping into larger roles. Young, new players needing to step in and find immediate success. In a way, that uncertainty drove expectations around the country down from the lofty heights they reached each of the last two seasons.

But that didn’t stop the Wildcats from expecting more from themselves, and wanting to build their own legend at a school with plenty of them already.

“We have a team hungry to prove that we have a good team,” coach Sean Miller told CBS Sports, “That we have a successful team. And not be a team that rides the coattails of some of the success that has happened here over the last couple of years.”

That hunger has paid off. A 15-3 start and a No. 12 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll shows that this team means business, and is one to really monitor the rest of the year. That is, if it can stay healthy.

Sean Miller has had his work cut out for him this season. (USATSI)
Sean Miller has had his work cut out for him this season. (USATSI)

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No top 25 team in the country that has been as decimated by injuries as Arizona. Look at the injury list, and tell me if anyone can match this.

Freshman Ray Smith, who Miller says likely would have been their starting small forward, tore his ACL in the preseason and will miss the year. Kaleb Tarczewski, the team’s returning lead scorer from last year, missed more than a month with a broken foot. This season’s leading scorer, freshman Allonzo Trier, is out with a broken hand and likely won’t return until mid-February. Ryan Anderson missed a game early on with a leg injury. Kadeem Allen sprained an ankle against Fresno State. Backup wing Elliott Pitts is out indefinitely for personal reasons.

The locker room has doubled as an infirmary, and it hasn’t quite allowed the team to get the time together that they’ve needed to coalesce on the floor. For instance, Miller has noted throughout the season that the Wildcats aren’t nearly where they need to be defensively. Given that defense — especially one like Miller’s that requires constant rotation to limit open looks and cut off penetration in the middle of the floor — is often a matter of continuity, it makes sense that the team has struggled on that end.

Just during this particular stretch of the season, there are multiple stylistic changes that the team has to get accustomed to. Now that Tarczewski is back, they have to get used to him flying out and hedging screens hard, then recovering back to his man as opposed to Dusan Ristic playing soft pick-and-roll coverage. They also have to get used to Mark Tollefsen playing on the wing as opposed to playing at the 4, and the different timing that he brings on rotations in comparison to Trier.

It’s adjustments on the fly like this that has made senior leadership such an important factor in the team’s success. Both returning seniors Tarczewski and Gabe York have been critical to communicating what exactly the coaching staff wants from all six newcomers. Anderson and Tollefsen are also seniors who have been around the block and provide experienced bodies who know college basketball well.

“The experience, the practices, the big game experience, knowing how to do it and what to do, there’s really just no substitute for talented players who are older,” Miller said. “And that’s what we have. The two guys who have been there through everything are Kaleb [Tarczewski] and Gabe [York]. Then with the maturity of Mark [Tollefsen] and Ryan [Anderson] added to those guys, that’s been the bridge between who we’ve lost and how we can continue to be successful.”

Anderson, the team’s best player, has also stepped up on his new team and really become an emotional leader for the group. It started in the offseason after the outgoing players departed.

That’s when he realized the aforementioned expectations around the team were pretty low compared to in previous years. There were the half dozen newcomers who were yet played a minute of game-time yet for Arizona, as well as four returnees who needed to step into larger roles. In order to get his team to rally around those factors, he came up with a motto for the team to live by.

“‘Just Us’ is something the team came up with over the summer when we felt like we weren’t necessarily being as respected as teams at Arizona in the past,” Anderson said. “We didn’t need everybody hyping us up, or all the different accolades in the preseason. We just needed a group of guys to be honed in on our mission to get better every day and a group of guys that are committed to the team.

“We don’t have the top five pick that in years past Arizona’s had. But we do have a group of talented guys here, and the ‘Just Us’ mantra was basically that if we play together and we play unselfish and we do what Coach Miller and our staff want, that’s all we need. Just Us.”

You hear that stuff from every sports team obviously. The underdog narrative. The “nobody believes in us” rallying cry that coaches use to motivate. What makes this one different? Their coach, ever the realist among his brethren nationally, explained what makes this one so effective and unique.

“Sometimes as a coach when a group of guys or a team adopts a slogan or a motto, everybody in sports tries to do that in some way,” Miller says. “Everyone tries to do it. Sometimes it’s real, sometimes you roll your eyes and say ‘oh yeah, that’s just what they say when they break the huddle or talk about.’ But if you watch us practice or if you’re around our team for a week, you realize that our team really embodies those qualities. It’s about backing up that they don’t want to be recognized for the things that happened last year, or two years ago, or for that matter, 15 years ago. They want to earn it, and be talked about as being a good team.”

Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York lead by example. (USATSI)
Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York lead by example. (USATSI)

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With a reloaded roster and lower expectations heading into the year, it’s rather impressive that Miller, Anderson, and the rest of the group have been able to pull together the record that they have. Just look around the rest of the country at teams that lost similar amounts of production and talent off of successful seasons in 2014-15. They’re not exactly matching that success to this point.

Kentucky is sitting at No. 23 after a foursome of rather confounding losses given the Wildcats talent level. Duke will likely be unranked next week after a three-game losing streak has them at 14-5. Wisconsin hasn’t had any real sort of impact on this season. Notre Dame and Gonzaga have scuffled along a bit after losing guards like Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell.

Then throw on top of that the injuries that Arizona has had to deal with? It’s surprising that Arizona hasn’t dropped even more games than it has in this season of madness nationwide. It’s a testament to the coaching and the leadership that has been built out in Tucson that the team is still playing at a high level even in the face of hardship.

“We’ve had a lot of adversity so far this year,” Anderson said. “A lot of guys have been out. Even in the preseason we had guys coming in and out of the lineup with one or two week injury type things. I think it really just prepared us for this moment. As Coach Miller says around here, its next man up. This is really just testing that ‘Just Us’ motto we have because if that [teamwork] is all that we need to be successful, then someone within our circle always has to step up.”

That attitude has gotten them this far, but now comes the pesky part of trying to get everyone healthy. After all, 15-3 is just a start; it’s not an accomplishment. The team hasn’t been fully healthy and at the top of its game since all the way back in November. They won’t have their full cast until February when Trier returns. But once that happens?

It’s possible that they’re going to be a team to be reckoned with, and a team that is able to fulfill that “Just Us” motto by leaving its own mark on the university.

Ryan Anderson has been the Wildcats' best player. (USATSI)
Kadeem Allen will be one of the key players for Arizona this year. (USATSI)

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