Arizona’s Sean Miller is doing the best coaching job of his career.
There was absolutely no way that Arizona should have been ranked first in the Pac-12’s preseason poll, but there’s a legitimate chance that the Wildcats could be in that spot at the end of the season because of the guy that’s pulling the strings on the sidelines.
Miller lost four starters — T.J. McConnell, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Brandon Ashley — from last year’s team that lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, but still has Arizona at 12-1 overall and ranked No. 8 heading into conference play.
Another thing to remember about that record: Kaleb Tarczewski — the fifth starter from last season’s squad — has been out of the lineup since Nov. 26 due to a foot injury.
That means that Miller has an entirely new starting five and essentially an entirely new team, but the results for the Wildcats haven’t changed.
At least not yet.
Arizona’s first three Pac-12 games are all on the road and against three teams — Arizona State, UCLA, and USC — that all look like they have a chance to play in the postseason.
The key for this team moving forward will be the continued evolution of Kadeem Allen at point guard and whether or not Miller can find a second perimeter threat to consistently take pressure off senior Gabe York (13.1 points).
Freshman wing Allonzo Trier (13.7 points ) has been stellar out of the gate, but it remains to be seen if he can do this type of damage consistently in Pac-12 play.
The Wildcats don’t have what they’ve had in the past, but they still have a chance and that’s because of Miller.
Virginia’s Anthony Gill may be the toughest player in college basketball: There’s one word that comes to mind when describing Gill: warrior.
The fifth-year senior has taken on the same role anchoring the Cavaliers’ defense as guys that came before him like Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins all while still producing at a high level on offense (14.5 points).
Gill lives for contact and regularly does battle on the boards against bigger and stronger post players despite only standing 6-foot-8.
If Tony Bennett needs him to take a charge, he’ll do it.
If he needs him to set a screen on offense to free up Malcolm Brogdon or London Perrantes for a shot, he’ll oblige without hesitation.
Another thing about Gill?
He’s an extremely accurate offensive player considering the type of punishment he regularly receives on the low block.
In his three years at Virginia, Gill has never shot loss than 57.1 percent.
This guy is about the one common attribute that has allowed the Cavaliers’ program to flourish the past few years — sacrifice.
The new defensive rules in college basketball have affected Georgetown: John Thompson III has always preferred to have bigger and longer players than his opponents in an effort to give his team flexibility where guys be interchangeable at different positions on the floor.
This formula has allowed the Hoyas to be a physical team that wore down its opponents while using its size and length to smother the opposition.
But those things have been harder to achieve thanks to the new defensive rules that were adopted this year in college basketball.
When a defensive player touches a guy on the perimeter now it’s a foul.
When a cutter is bumped when he’s trying to get through the middle of the lane it’s a foul.
“Freedom of movement” has become the new go-to term in our sport and it hasn’t helped Georgetown.
The Hoyas have struggled against guards with burst that could get into the paint and attack the defense. This has created driving lanes where opposing back courts could penetrate and kick to find open shooters and that’s magnified Georgetown’s lack of ability to guard the 3-point line.
In the Hoyas’ last four games against UNC-Wilmington, Radford, UNC Asheville, and Charlotte they’ve given up a combined 33 made 3-point shots.
That has to change if Georgetown (7-5) is going to be a factor in the Big East and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
This and That
• How good has Miami (10-1) been to start the season? Other than a five-point overtime win at Nebraska all nine of the Hurricanes’ victories have come by double-figures and an average of 23.3 points. Jim Larranaga’s squad is one missed jump shot away from being undefeated and has the look of a major contender in the ACC.
• Think Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor make a difference for LSU? The duo is combining to average 29.6 points during the game’s they’ve played this season and have emerged as two of the Tigers’ top-four players in addition to Ben Simmons and Tim Quarterman. Johnny Jones’ team is 7-4 overall and has a good SEC tuneup on Dec. 29 against Wake Forest.
• North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks is starting to become a reliable contributor. The 6-8 junior has reached double-figures in each of the Tar Heels last four games and has yet to play more than 23 minutes during that span. His emergence will make Roy Williams’ team even deeper when Kennedy Meeks returns from injury in a few weeks.
• One of the main reasons for South Carolina’s 11-0 start has been the emergence of senior Michael Carrera. The 6-7 forward transitioned seamlessly transitioned to playing small forward after years at the four and is currently leading the Gamecocks in both scoring (12.7) and rebounding (6.0). Frank Martin’s squad looks like a top-four SEC team.
• There no such thing in moral victories, but Cal’s performance at Virginia on Tuesday night was about as impressive a team can be in defeat. The Bears fell by a point in overtime after leading virtually the entire game, but unfortunately that doesn’t score this team any bonus points. Beating a team like the Cavaliers — the defending two-time ACC regular champions — would have been huge down the line for NCAA seeding or placement. Instead Cuonzo Martin’s team is left with a loss that’s about as excruciating as we’ve seen so far this season.
• Cincinnati has a gem in freshman wing Jacob Evans. The 6-6 Evans can make shots, handle the ball, and is extremely accurate from the foul line (14-for-14 in his last three games). The Baton Rouge, Louisiana native has scored a combined 34 points in his last three games all while showing a penchant for giving the Bearcats what they need most: consistent offense.
• Saint Joseph’s forward Isaiah Miles is playing like someone who knows he’s only got a few months left in college basketball. The senior has quietly performed like of the most improved players in the country and had 36 points to go with 15 rebounds in Tuesday’s win over Virginia Tech at the Barclays Center. A year ago as a junior Miles averaged 10.7 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 38.9 percent. This season he’s averaging 17.4 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 50.0 percent. Phil Martelli’s squad is 9-2 overall.
• Iowa freshman Nicholas Baer is starting to give the Hawkeyes another weapon in reserve. The 6-8 walk-on has scored a combined 32 points in this team’s last two games and has also grabbed 16 rebounds during that span. Fran McCaffery’s squad doesn’t nearly the same depth that it’s had the past two years, but it will be better served if Baer can continue to produce once this team hits the Big Ten.
• Oakland’s performance against Michigan State on Tuesday night in Auburn Hills, Michigan brings up a point that a lot of power-five bubble teams are not going to want to hear in March: the Horizon League could be a multi-bid league in March with the Golden Grizzlies and Valpo. And also don’t forget about Milwaukee who has won games at both Wisconsin and Minnesota.
• An under-the-radar story in the Atlantic 10? Jim Ferry has Duquesne (10-2) off to its best start in nearly four decades. The Dukes will play at Georgia Tech on Dec. 29 before beginning league play at home against Dayton on Jan. 2.