Arizona Wildcats Still Title Contenders Without Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson

Arizona WildcatsThe day that Arizona Wildcats basketball fans had been dreading finally arrived on Tuesday, as junior Nick Johnson and freshman Aaron Gordon both declared that they are taking their talents to the NBA in a joint press conference with head coach Sean Miller. The decision was not surprising for either of them, as Gordon came to Tucson as one of the highly-touted freshmen in an elite class and did not disappoint, whereas Johnson contributed three great seasons culminating in his Pac-12 Player of the Year Award this year. Despite losing arguably its two best players, Arizona basketball will not miss a beat without them.

As great as Johnson was, he never fully embraced being the No. 1 option in the offense. Arizona’s offense looked somewhat stale at times, an issue which contributed greatly to their eventual undoing in the Elite 8 against Wisconsin. In times of need, Miller would show faith in letting Johnson try to get the team out of a funk by utilizing isolation plays, an area where Johnson does not excel. He was a phenomenal two-way player, but Arizona’s offense can go through an addition by subtraction ordeal. Four-time California high school state champion Stanley Johnson will be headlining another great recruiting class by Sean Miller for the 2014-15 season, and his addition will allow the offense to work more organically and play through the loaded front-court more often.

Gordon’s otherworldly athleticism will likely solidify his status as a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He was a beast on defense and showed that he really could be a jump-shot away from being a dominant force in the NBA for years. Arizona will also definitely miss him, but the blow of losing the stud freshman was greatly mitigated by fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson announcing his return for a sophomore season. Hollis-Jefferson found himself catapulted into a prominent role after power forward Brandon Ashley went down for the season with a broken foot, and he showed every bit why he too will be a lottery pick as soon as next year. A full offseason under his belt should be all it takes for him to seamlessly replace the void left by Gordon in the starting lineup.

In addition to Hollis-Jefferson’s return, big men Kaleb Tarczewski and Ashley are coming back for a junior season. Little-used point guard Jordin Mayes was the team’s only senior, and his spot will be taken by another incoming freshman, the electrifying 5-foot-8 point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. What Arizona may miss most from the Gordon and Johnson departures is their defensive intensity, but on the other side of the spectrum, Miller will have a more dynamic offense as well as a deeper bench. Gabe York and Elliot Pitts will have more experience and more time to get stronger, and freshman forward Craig Victor rounds out the recruiting class by bringing a much-needed big body off the bench. Victor is a four-star recruit, and the 37th overall player in the 2014 class according to ESPN. Miller also is bringing in JUCO star Kadeem Allen to give the team even more scoring punch.

Few, if any teams were more prepared to replace departed stars quite like this Arizona team was. Miller knew this day was almost a certainty even before getting a commitment from Gordon, and he did a great job covering his tracks. Next season’s Wildcats will look a lot different, but will be just as much of a threat to reach the National Championship.

Commentary by Justin Hussong

Arizona Daily Star