It didn't take long for Arizona freshman Nick Johnson to take a liking to student-athlete life in Tucson—Wildcats football games, NBA 2K12 with teammates, posing for photos with fans around campus. But even for a top 40 recruit from Findlay Prep, a national basketball powerhouse in Las Vegas, coach Sean Miller's relentlessly intense practices required a substantial adjustment. "Every drill is like, 'Wow, this is the pace we need to go to be successful,'" Johnson said near the end of his first week. "It's really mind-blowing, but you get used to it."
In the wake of star forward Derrick Williams's departure for the NBA and point guard MoMo Jones's transfer to Iona, Miller will be counting on Johnson and the rest of the highly touted freshman class to get up to speed quickly. The quartet of newcomers—guards Johnson and Josiah Turner and forwards Sidiki Johnson and Angelo Chol—will join five returnees who averaged double-digit minutes on last year's Elite Eight squad. (A sixth, swingman Kevin Parrom, is recovering from being shot in the knee in September.) It would be impossible to match the transcendent talent of Williams, the second-most efficient player in D-I last season. So Miller needs senior guard Kyle Fogg and junior forward Solomon Hill to improve their individual games with the goal of fostering a more balanced attack. "We may never be that team that has one player you can always count on for 20 points," Miller says, "but we have a collection of guys that can make plays."
The freshmen must join that collection as soon as possible. Most of the early buzz has gone to Nick Johnson, an athletic wing with an impressive pedigree (he's the nephew of Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson and the son of Arizona State great Jumpin' Joey Johnson), and Turner, a 6'3", 192-pound point guard adept at distributing the rock and attacking the rim. Both big men will be important pieces as well, with the powerful (235 pounds) Sidiki Johnson offering physical interior rebounding and the swift-footed, lefthanded Chol being a potential shot-blocking machine. All four could be in the starting lineup for the first game, but Miller, who got off to a slow start in his first year at Pittsburgh in 1987--88 before earning Big East all-rookie honors, knows to take the long view. "At the end of the season," says Miller, "if our freshman class as a whole contributed, then I think we'll have a good season."
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
COACH Sean Miller (3rd season)
2010--11 RECORD 30--8 Pac-10 14--4 (1st)
NCAA TOURNAMENT Elite Eight
*High school stats
337 NUMBER OF shots blocked by Angelo Chol during his sophomore year at Hoover High in San Diego. He finished his career with 1,120.
The veterans play up to their potential and the newcomers prove to be quick studies, giving Sean Miller a deep rotation that wins a second straight league title.
Even if the freshmen flounder and the lack of a true go-to scorer proves to be a liability, the Wildcats should still finish in the top half of the middling Pac-12.
JAYME A. KELTER
JOSIAH TURNER He was the No. 2--rated point guard in the nation last year, but an exhibition loss to a D-II team offered a humbling lesson.