Arizona coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats will be cautious with Brandon Ashley and may give him an extra day off from practice in the coming months as he returns from a broken foot that sidelined him for the final 16 games of last season.
"Brandon is 100 percent cleared,'' Miller said on the ESPNU college basketball podcast Wednesday.
The Wildcats, though, wanted to wait until the seven-month threshold from the date of surgery ended to ensure no setbacks.
"If you watch him in practice he runs like nothing happened,'' Miller said of Ashley, who averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22 games last season as a sophomore. "It's his third year for us as a starter ... He's one of our natural leaders. We're optimistic he'll have a big season for us.''
Miller is embracing the No. 1 prediction given to the Wildcats by the Sporting News preseason magazine and didn't shy away from the possibility that the team will have a chance to compete for the national title.
"It's always flattering to be called No. 1, and we have a chance to be very good,'' he said.
Miller said the experience in Ashley, junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, junior guard Gabe York and fifth-year senior point guard T.J. McConnell as well as the return of sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gives the Wildcats the necessary experience to make a run. The infusion of heralded freshmen forward Stanley Johnson, expected to be a replacement for Aaron Gordon, and junior college transfer guard Kadeem Allen allow the Wildcats the necessary balance.
"We've added young talent, and now it's up to us and our team to come together,'' Miller said. "One of our great strengths was our team chemistry last year. We know what it looks like and we have to re-establish it again.''
Miller said the Wildcats have twice "knocked on the door" of getting to the Final Four in his five years as coach, losing to UConn in the 2011 Elite Eight and then to Wisconsin in the same round last March.
"We're hungry to break through,'' Miller said. "No one has to remind us that we want to be in the Final Four. We have a team and no question if things line up maybe we can be that team. We're a long way from there, but if we have the team chemistry, and hopefully have the health and good fortune then we'll have a very good season.''
Arizona will challenge itself again in the nonconference schedule by playing two true road games for the second straight season. Arizona was at Michigan and at San Diego State last season -- winning both. Michigan returns the game this season to Tucson, while the Wildcats go to UNLV and to UTEP. That's in addition to hosting likely top 15 team Gonzaga as well as playing in the Maui Invitational (with San Diego State and Pittsburgh the other potential top 25 teams in the field).
"I do believe programs that are no longer playing true road games will be severely penalized when it comes time to the NCAA tournament, whether it's the seed they get or making it or not making it,'' Miller said. "There are just way too many good teams and so much parity that you can't play games with the nonconference schedule.''
Miller said he hasn't been told directly to play two true road games but said those games prepare a team for conference play by being in hostile environments.
"It's what college basketball always has been,'' he said. "We want to be that team that is evaluated in March that is doing it the right way.''