Despite the departure of one of the nation’s top players, Arizona is ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time in four years based partially on the expectations of four highly touted freshmen.
That inexperienced group has already shown it has plenty of work to do.
Following a couple of ugly performances in their exhibition games, the 16th-ranked Wildcats open the regular season Monday night against Valparaiso as part of the 2K Sports Classic.
Despite being the Pac-12’s highest ranked team, Arizona already has plenty to prove. The Wildcats lost their exhibition opener 69-68 to Division II Seattle Pacific, their first preseason defeat since falling to Athletes in Action in 1984.
It was hardly the way to follow up on last season’s 30-8 record, which included a Pac-10 regular-season title and trip to the NCAA tournament regional finals.
The Wildcats, ranked in the preseason for the first time since entering at No. 17 in 2007, bounced back from that loss with a sloppy 60-51 win over D-II Humboldt State on Tuesday. Arizona turned the ball over 20 times and shot 57.9 percent from the free-throw line (22 of 38).
“Obviously we have a low starting point, and a long way to go,” coach Sean Miller said. “But we know a lot more about our team now than we did two weeks ago.”
Arizona has known since last spring it would have to replace Derrick Williams, who left after his sophomore season for the NBA draft and was selected second overall by Minnesota.
Williams scored 19.5 points per game, making him the only Wildcat to average double figures.
Arizona also lost its second-leading scorer in Lamont Jones, who transferred to Iona. The Wildcats return their next four leading scorers - senior Kyle Fogg (8.1 ppg), junior Solomon Hill (8.0), junior Kevin Parrom (7.6) and senior Jesse Perry (6.6) - but know they’ll need to find a new go-to player on the offensive end.
The Wildcats are expected to rely heavily on four freshmen - guards Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson and big men Sidiki Johnson and Angelo Chol. Turner has started each of the exhibition games, while Johnson was the leading scorer in the preseason, averaging 13.0 points.
“These freshmen are going to be good - real good,” Fogg said. “They’re going to be able to contribute right away.”
They’ll get their first regular-season action against a Valparaiso team that went 23-12 last season and finished a game out of first place in the Horizon League. The Wildcats are 8-1 all-time against Horizon teams, which includes two victories in as many games against the Crusaders.
They haven’t met since a 74-70 win in 2001.
Former Valpo star and first-year coach Bryce Drew takes over a team that returns two starters and must replace three of its top four scorers from a year ago.
The Crusaders will likely lean on junior swingman Ryan Broekhoff, who started 34 games last season and finished third on the team in scoring (10.3 points per game). He shot a Horizon League-best 44.8 percent from 3-point range.
Valpo has lost 33 consecutive games against top 25 teams since Drew hit one of the most memorable shots in NCAA tournament history, knocking down a 3-pointer at the buzzer in a 70-69 win over fourth-seeded Mississippi in the first round in 1998.