LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Thought about this last night at the Orleans Casino before the Arizona Wildcats lost to Butler in the Continental Tire Invitational: Are the team’s four newcomers an upgrade in talent from the four seniors who exhausted their eligibility last season?
The answer in my mind: A decided yes. And that is a rarity in Arizona’s program because generally talent moves on to the NBA. The big thing now only six games in: Arizona’s talent is unrefined whereas the Wildcats’ seniors from last year had plenty of experience at the Division I level.
The Arizona Wildcats’ extreme influx of new talent includes newcomers accounting for 53 percent of the minutes.
Gone are Gabe York, Kaleb Tarczewski, Mark Tollefsen and Ryan Anderson.
Influential replacements in Arizona’s 5-1 start: Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Keanu Pinder.
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Just for argument’s sake:
York vs. Simmons: Simmons has such raw talent and his moxie in the second half against Butler enabled Arizona to go on a 15-2 run after the Wildcats trailed by nine. He is tough as nails and versatile. Edge: Simmons.
Tarczewski vs. Pinder: Give Zeus the edge here because of his size as a 7-footer and presence around the basket. But Pinder has shown to be highly productive with his minutes. He brings energy to the Wildcats, which has fed into key runs. Zeus was not as dynamic in that regard.
Tollefsen vs. Alkins: Edge goes to Alkins without question because of his potential. His biggest deficiency right now is inconsistency. He can look great in a five-minute span and then disappear the next five minutes. The 25 or so NBA scouts who attended the tournament here took notes while watching Alkins make plays.
Anderson vs. Markkanen: Same argument goes for Markkanen against Anderson because the Finnish product has a world of potential. Anderson was the master of the double-double. Markkanen will have his fare share of those while also being able to extend to the perimeter as a 7-foot wing player. He is a lottery-pick projection while Anderson is now playing in Belgium.
Sean Miller is certainly in a season of transition with a relatively significant turn for the better in terms of overall potential from his personnel.
“Butler is a little further along at this time of year than we are,” Miller said after the 69-65 loss last night. “With that experience (of Butler), we knew we had to play very well and for certain things to go our way for us to win.
“(Simmons) is a young player, as is Rawle, as is Lauri. We’re here in the month of November. … We’re a work in progress. We knew coming here (to Las Vegas) that we were going to have two tough games (the other against Santa Clara on Thursday) and that’s what we got. They were both winnable and they were both loseable.”
Arizona’s three freshmen — Markkanen, Alkins and Simmons — are the team’s top three scorers. They account for 53.5 percent of the Wildcats’ points and 49.8 percent of their field goal attempts.
Miller offered a brief critique of each after the game last night.
On Alkins: “We talked about (Butler’s) ability to shoot threes, and with the closeouts (defensively) I think in the first two possessions, it was almost like he didn’t really understand. But he did a great job for the reminder of the game.”
On Markkanen: “Lauri played through foul trouble (before fouling out with 3:10 left). He had some tough calls go against him, but he wasn’t able to assert himself. A couple of fouls, he probably could have controlled by being where he was supposed to be a little earlier. He’ll get better at that.”
On Simmons (who scored all 14 of his points in the second half): “He just needs to stay in the flow of the game. He wasn’t in it maybe the entire first half, but no question he turned it. He spearheaded our comeback. He led us with his athleticism and his effort.”
Add Pinder to the freshman group and the four newcomers are responsible for 47.2 percent of the Wildcats’ rebounds.
The changeover goes beyond the new talent.
Junior center Dusan Ristic started nine games in his first two seasons, most in place of the injured Tarczewski last year. He has nearly as many starts this season through six games.
Fellow junior Parker Jackson-Cartwright previously started only six games in his career, all last season, with Kadeem Allen and York getting most of the starts. Jackson-Cartwright has matched that start total this year through the six games.
Sophomore post player Chance Comanche played only 139 minutes in 23 appearances last season. He is already at 105 minutes this season.
Allen, a senior in his third season in the program, is in a new role of being the vocal leader, something the Wildcats really did not have last year, at least consistently. He gave way to the senior quartet of York, Tarczewski, Tollefsen and Anderson.
With the eligibility status of sophomore Allonzo Trier still not resolved, Miller has basically only Allen and, to a lesser degree, Jackson-Cartwright and Ristic, as key rotation players from last season.
What it means: Give Arizona time. Being in a position to beat Butler late — remember Arizona was a 1-point underdog — bodes well for Miller’s team. The Bulldogs will be a factor in the competitive Big East. They have a shot to go deep in the NCAA tournament. They would be an upper-division team in the Pac-12, no doubt.
The time is not now for Arizona. It’s in February and March. It will be fun to watch the young players develop in the meantime.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.