John Gasaway, ESPN Insider 413d

Problems aside, Arizona has a No. 1 team on the floor

Men's College Basketball, Arizona Wildcats

On Wednesday, will roll out its preseason Power Rankings. Next week, the first AP poll of the season will be unveiled. A case can be made for a host of teams to be No. 1. Here is the case for Arizona to have the top spot.

A while back, I became interested in ranking exceptionally loaded rosters that cross two specific statistical thresholds -- one for incoming talent and another for returning experience. I give such rosters the label of "category 5," and it's an elite club that includes past national champions such as Kentucky in 2011-12 and Duke in 2014-15, as well as near-misses such as UK in 2014-15 (and, yes, one not-so-near miss in the form of Duke last season).

There are no category 5 rosters in Division I for 2017-18, but the good news for Arizona fans is that the Wildcats come much closer to that status this season than any other program. That, in a nutshell, is why Sean Miller's group is a legitimate choice as the No. 1 team in the country. On paper, this roster arguably blends talent and experience better than any program in Division I.

With Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright all coming back and a freshman the caliber of Deandre Ayton entering the program along with classmates Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot and Ira Lee (I haven't even mentioned UNC Asheville transfer Dylan Smith yet), Miller could have as much talent as he's ever had in Tucson. That's saying something.

Now, obviously, any preseason look at Arizona in the fall of 2017 comes with an asterisk. Wildcat assistant coach Emanuel "Book" Richardson was arrestedĀ last month along with assistants at three other programs. Richardson was charged with conspiracy to commit bribery.

The FBI's investigation alleges that Richardson arranged a $15,000 payment to an unnamed recruit who then "verbally committed to attending" Arizona "on or about Aug. 9, 2017." As it happens, Jahvon Quinerly, the No. 23-ranked recruit in the 2018 ESPN 100, did commit to the Wildcats on Aug. 8. Quinerly has since withdrawn that commitment after telling my colleague Jeff Borzello that his family has retained an attorney.

No one -- least of all Miller or his boss, athletic director Dave Heeke -- knows what the ramifications of this investigation will be for the Arizona program. In the meantime, for better or worse, basketball goes on, and will until further notice, in Tucson and elsewhere.

Any offense led by the likes of Trier and Ayton will pose challenges to opposing defenses, and Miller has a history of putting good shooting teams on the floor. Trier should finally have the opportunity to show what he can do over an entire season after an injury and a suspension shortened his freshman and sophomore campaigns, respectively. Even in an abbreviated 2016-17 season, for example, the 6-foot-5 wing drew more than six fouls per 40 minutes and shot 81 percent at the line as UA's featured scorer.

Ayton was ranked as the No. 3 freshman in the ESPN 100, behind only Duke's Marvin Bagley IIIĀ and Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. The 7-foot-1 star led all scorers in Arizona's annual Red-Blue intrasquad scrimmage this month, with 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Ayton is projected as a top-five pick in the 2018 NBA draft.

Trier and Ayton will have plenty of support, although Alkins is likely to be sidelined until December with an injured foot. Ristic didn't get the publicity that then-teammate Lauri Markkanen attracted last season, but it was the 7-foot-0 Serbian who actually shot for a higher percentage inside the arc while carrying a heavier workload on offense (albeit over fewer minutes).

Jackson-Cartwright is a proven, pass-first point guard (and an underrated source for takeaways on D), and Randolph has turned some heads in the preseason. Lastly, the 6-foot-5 Smith showed promise as a freshman at UNC Asheville two seasons ago, shooting 82 percent at the line despite being thrust into the role of his team's primary offensive weapon at a tender age. Miller will have options.

Arizona's D become synonymous with great defense under Miller, but the Wildcats actually caught something of a break there last season. The Pac-12 made less than 32 percent of its 3s against this defense, a percentage that is likely to increase in 2017-18. UA will likely have to improve just to achieve the same results on D as last season.

Then again, improvement is a likely scenario in a rotation that will give heavy minutes to 7-footers like Ayton and Ristic. Arizona will have exceptional size in the paint, and traditionally Miller's defenses have put that size to use in limiting opponents to one shot and to very few trips to the line. Look for most if not all of the above to continue in 2017-18.

Which leads to the inevitable question: Can this team finally get to the Final Four? It would be the program's first such trip since 2001, and Miller's first appearance in a national semifinal. Can it happen in April 2018?

Are we even having this discussion? Not only is it possible, it's more likely that Arizona will be in San Antonio than just about any other team in the country. No, the hoops gods haven't exactly smiled on Miller in Elite Eight games, but the material points there are that the man has been to four Elite Eights and now has one of his best teams yet.

This projects to be the year the inevitable question stops being asked, because there's a case to be made that Arizona is the favorite to win it all in 2017-18.

^ Back to Top ^