Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose team is coming off a disappointing 17-15 season, will begin trying to put the puzzle together this season when the No. 21 Wildcats open against visiting Northern Arizona on Wednesday.
Arizona has seven new players, including a pair of freshmen who show up on early 2020 first-round mock drafts — potential lottery point guard Nico Mannion and wing Josh Green.
This is a team that is deeper, bigger and should shoot better than last season’s squad, but Miller has been preaching patience.
“We have a lot of guys doing things for the first time, a lot of guys who haven’t done a lot of things together,” he said.
Other new players in the rotation are freshman big man Zeke Nnaji, UC Irvine grad transfer guard Max Hazzard, Kentucky transfer guard Jemarl Baker Jr., stretch-four Cornell grad transfer Stone Gettings and intriguing but raw 7-footer Christian Koloko.
Nnaji missed the exhibition game against Chico State on Friday night because of a sprained ankle but is expected to start next to Chase Jeter, a senior center. Jeter is the team’s leading returning scorer at 10.9 points per game since sophomore combo guard Brandon Williams was ruled out for the season due to a lingering knee issue.
“Zeke Nnaji is really important to our defense,” Miller said. “He gives us more depth, quickness, can switch, make hard plays around the basket, very good rebounder. None of our bigs have to play heavy minutes. That makes your defense better.”
Either Hazzard or Baker could start at shooting guard, although senior Dylan Smith got the call in the exhibition game. Baker, a sophomore, was cleared by the NCAA last week for immediate eligibility and can help back up Mannion at the point, which was a potential issue after Williams was declared gone for the year.
Baker missed about half of the preseason practices because of a hip injury.
“He’s nowhere near where I believe he’ll be as we keep moving forward,” Miller said.
Northern Arizona, which went 10-21 last season, was picked to finish eighth in the Big Sky in preseason polls by the league’s coaches and media.
The Lumberjacks have an interim head coach, Shane Burcar. He took over for Jack Murphy, who spent seven seasons as the head coach in Flagstaff before returning to Arizona for a pay raise as Miller’s associate head coach. Murphy learned the ropes for eight seasons under Lute Olson at Arizona, first as team manager and then as recruiting coordinator, administrative assistant, video coordinator and director of operations.
Northern Arizona returns almost 73 percent of its scoring, including junior forward Bernie Andre, who averaged team highs with 13.8 points and 8.5 rebounds last season. Sophomore guard Luke Avdalovic is a top 3-point ace, having made 49.3 percent of his 148 attempts last year.
The Lumberjacks are eager to see 6-foot-4 guard Cameron Satterwhite, a transfer who averaged 10.4 minutes per game for the Loyola-Chicago team that made an improbable run to the 2018 Final Four.
Burcar wants to play a pressuring man-to-man defense, which is where Satterwhite, a Phoenix native, can help.
“I think he’ll claim he has a 7-foot wingspan. I don’t know about that,” Burcar said in the Arizona Daily Sun. “But that’s how we want to play with our pressure defense, and with our personnel I think we can do that.”
Arizona sophomore guard Devonaire Doutrive was suspended indefinitely last week because of a violation of team rules, and he likely will be out Wednesday.
–Field Level Media