Arizona's string of 25 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament ended last season as the Wildcats went 16-15 in Sean Miller's first year as coach after coming west from Xavier. However, Arizona believes it can get back to the NCAAs this season and a big reason why is the potential of power forward Derrick Williams, the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year last season.
Williams averaged 15.7 points/7.1 rebounds/0.7 assists and 28.2 minutes a game a year ago and was 18th in the nation in free throw rate (82.3), 65th in true shooting percentage (62.0) and 85th in effective field goal percentage (58.2). Williams is one of six Pac-10 players on the Wooden Award pre-season list of 50 players and Miller would like to see him become a little more selfish this season.
"Derrick has great humility, very unassuming, great teammate and then there are times you want him to be more prominent on the court and that's what we're working with him to establish," Miller said. "He's going to do better in that area. I really believe he’s poised to take that next step and be one of the best players, not only in the Pac-10, but playing the game. I’m excited that he represents who we are and what we do."
Williams has come a long way since the beginning of last season. Miller uses a plus-minus point total system during each week of practice based on such factors as rebounds, assists, turnovers, drawing fouls, being called for fouls, taking charges, made field goals and three-pointers. Categories are then weighted, so the most important ones in Miller's mind are reflected.
The player who scores the highest each week receives a special gold jersey to wear in practice along with a gold "A" that is placed in his locker. Williams did not win the gold jersey once in 19 weeks of practice last season. This year, won it during the very first week of drills.
"At this time a year ago, he had no chance," Miller said. “Watching his development and improvement is a reminder to me to stay with young people. Derrick is going to continue to develop and pick up right where he left off."
Williams will be one of three sophomore starters along with point guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones (6.6/1.8/1.6/18.8) and forward Solomon Hill(6.7/4.4/1.7/25.3). Small forward Kevin Parrom (4.6/4.2/1.7/20.9) and center Kyryl Natyazhko (1.9/2.0/0.1/10.9) give the Wildcats two more sophomores coming off the bench.
Miller, whose team opens Sunday, Nov. 14 against Idaho State, believes it is that sophomore class that will bring Arizona back to prominence after a turbulent time in which he became the Wildcats' fourth coach in four seasons.
"As a team, we have a quest to be better at everything that we do," Miller said. "I thought the hardest part about being at Arizona last year was coming off four coaches in four years and welcoming young players. It was very difficult to establish a system and be good at anything. I thought we had some great moments in spite of that, but as we’ve approached this year, it’s Derrick’s class that is tasked with bringing Arizona back to what everyone’s watched for years.”
Arizona is picked to finish second in the Pac-10 by the conference coaches behind Washington. That is fine with Williams when he thinks about how far he and the rest of his teammates have come in the last year.
“I think the conference race is going to be wide open," he said. "Washington deserves to be picked first. They have key players coming back. We don’t look at the rankings. I don’t look at those. We are just trying to get everyone on the same page. That’s what we liked last year. Everyone’s on the same page. We are at a higher starting point this year.”
Walker Key for Huskies
If Connecticut is to get back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season when it was 18-16, the Huskies will need a big season from junior point guard Kemba Walker (14.6/4.3/5.1/35.2), one of only two starters returning along with sophomore power forward Alex Oriakhi (5.5/6.6/0.4/24.6). Thus, coach Jim Calhoun has found it encouraging that Walker has been his team's best player during the preseason after playing 88.2 percent of Connecticut's minutes last season, which ranked him 59th nationally.
"Kemba clearly is a level above everybody else," Calhoun said. "We can't stop him. Hopefully nobody else will. He'll get doubled, I'm sure. That's going to put more pressure, but that's going to make some of the other kids on our team better."
The Huskies are particularly thin up front beyond Oriakhi but Calhoun is happy what he has seen so far from sophomore forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (3.3/1.1/0.6/11.2).
"He's a guy I've ridden since day eight or nine of last year and has really improved in terms of trying to do the right things," Calhoun said. "Does he always do them? No. But he's trying to do the right things, and I think that's important."
Connecticut plays Stony Brook in its opener Friday night.
Cleveland State to Challenge Butler in Horizon League
Butler is clearly the top program in the Horizon League. The Bulldogs narrowly lost to Duke in the national championship game last season and are the only team in the league that plays a national schedule.
"I don't expect them to take a step back," Cleveland State coach Gary Waters told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. They have their program at a level we're trying to reach, and teams in the league are trying to reach."
However, Waters doesn't believe that the Horizon League will always be Butler and everyone else. He is quick to point out that Cleveland State is just two seasons removed from winning 26 games, the league tournament and upsetting Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAAs.
Waters believes his Vikings can challenge Butler for the league championship this season with five returning starters from a 16-17 team. The headliner is senior point guard Norris Cole (16.3/2.8/4.4/34.2), whose 29.5 assist rate ranked him 95th nationally. Waters said the experience has showed as Cleveland State prepare for its opener Friday night against Bryant.
"Normally what happens is the first day of practice you start on the basics and get ready to compete," Waters said. "Offensively, we were into things that would probably take halfway through the season to get to. We're going to have those things ready to go the early part of this season."
Air Force Thinking Defense
It's safe to say Air Force needs a lot of work in a lot of areas coming off back-to-back 10-21 seasons, including a combined 1-31 mark in the Mountain West Conference.
However, the biggest area of concern for the Falcons is defense. They ranked 340th out of 347 Division I teams last season by allowing an effective field goal percentage of 53.2. Opponents also took 44.2 percent of their shots from three-point range; only North Dakota, Samford and Chattonooga faced a higher percentage.
“We want everyone to at least take a dribble and take a shot, because that’s so much harder than taking an open three,” guard Todd Fletcher said the Colorado Springs Gazette. “I think we gave up way too many.”
Air Force's defensive game plan last season was keep players in front of them. This season, the Falcons hope to put more pressure on the ball and play help defense when a man is beaten off the dribble.
“Defensively we’re making sure we’re making guys put the ball on the ground and we’re going to be there to help,” forward Tom Fow said.
Air Force begins its season next Sunday by hosting Colorado-Colorado Springs.
The Preseason List
We won't start running The List, our weekly look at the nation's top 25 teams in which we factor in various power ratings, until the start of the new year. However, with the season starting Monday night, here is one man's subjective look at the top 25:
Five others to watch: Brigham Young, Richmond, San Diego State, Temple, West Virginia
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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