Well it’s about damn time. Basketball season is finally here rescue us from this football season from hell. Breath it in, drink it down, bask in its golden rays. Enjoy the hope that comes with the start of a new season. Now snap out of it, it’s business time.
As always, Tom Izzo has set up a doozie of a non-conference schedule. First up, the #10 Arizona Wildcats. Ryan Kelapire from our friends over at AZ Desert Swarm was good enough to answer a few questions about the ‘Cats for us. Take it away, Ryan!
What are the expectations for this Arizona team?
Heading into the preseason, many believed this was a Final Four-caliber team. But it's hard to say if that's still the case because of the turmoil the program is in. Ray Smith — a former five-star recruit — tore his ACL (for the third time) and retired from basketball, while the team's leading returning scorer Allonzo Trier has dealt with unspecific issues and is out indefinitely. Plus, Chance Comanche — a lanky 6-foot-11 big man — missed two exhibition games with academic issues, though he is supposed to return versus Michigan State.
If all three players were in the lineup, then yes, we're talking about a team talented enough to be as good as anyone. Without them, it's still a good team — make no mistake about it — but it's probably a team that will be ranked in the 15-25 range rather than the top 10.
Arizona has one of the best recruiting classes in the nation last season, what should the public expect from each and which do you think will make the biggest impact this year?
Lauri Markkanen is the guy to watch. The Finnish big man is a legitimate 7-footer with the ability to do a ton of things offensively, with his 3-point game being his best attribute. He's been the only guy on Arizona that's been able to hit 3s in the preseason. Markkanen is projected as a lottery pick at the moment, and it wouldn't be surprising if he winds up being a top-5 pick — he's that good. He can put up 15-20 points with relative ease.
Rawle Alkins is probably the second guy to be wary of, especially since he'll be starting with Trier out. He's a strong 6-foot-6 guard/forward that uses his frame to effectively get into the paint. And he lives up to his New York reputation for being a hard-nosed player.
Kobi Simmons is about the same height as Alkins, but he's thinner and more athletic (he has a 45-inch vertical). Simmons was initially going to be the team's backup point guard, but has since moved off-the-ball because he wasn't handling the position well. Like Alkins, he's made most of his impact as a slasher, and while he does have a pretty jump shot, he's missed all six of his 3-point attempts in exhibition season. Defensively though, both Alkins and Simmons can cause havoc because of their physical attributes. The one thing Simmons and Alkins need to do is prove they can hit jumpers, and so far they haven't been able to. It's a big concern.
The last guy is Keanu Pinder, a junior college transfer. Not much was known about Pinder coming into the season other than that he was a stellar defensive player, but he's exceeded expectations. With Arizona's depth lacking, Pinder is playing a lot of minutes at the 4 and the 5 and is producing. He's a tenacious rebounder and a great athlete with some decent skill in the paint. He's listed at 6-foot-9, but he's more like 6-foot-8, and the major flaw in his game is that he's a non-shooter.
Just because of how relentless Pinder is, he's one of those players that opposing fan bases probably won't like.
There have been some injuries and suspensions, including Allonzo Trier and Ray Smith, how big of a concern is that?
Trier's out for a non-injury reason and having him and Smith out of the lineup is a big loss. Trier, entering his sophomore year, averaged nearly 15 points per game last season, and would give Arizona a much-needed shooter on the perimeter, plus he's the team's best slasher.
Smith missed last season with a torn ACL too, so we didn't know what — or how much — to expect from him, but Sean Miller said he thought Smith would have been a first-round pick if injuries didn't derail his career. He's 6-foot-8 with a good blend of athleticism and skill, and though we never saw him play in a game that counted, anytime you lose a player with that talent it's tough to recover from.
At a basic level, the absence of Trier and Smith means Arizona is down to eight scholarship players.
Arizona appears to have a height advantage on MSU, what do they need to do to exploit it?
Not get outmuscled.
Arizona does have a ton of height, as its starting front court features two 7-footers in Markkanen and Dusan Ristic, but both players are prone to being outworked on the glass. Markkanen, for instance, had zero rebounds in the first half against Chico State (though he did have seven in the second half). Ristic is average as a rebounder and has had some major issues in the past as an interior defender, but he has improved.
Offensively, Ristic and Markkanen should be able to take advantage of the mismatch. Ristic has terrific fundamentals as a low-post player and incredible touch around the rim (seriously, anytime he catches the ball in the low-post and is able to get a shot off, expect it to go in). Markkanen drifts more on the perimeter, but has shown he can score on the low-block and grab offensive boards too.
Comanche is a good change of pace from Markkanen and Ristic because his game is predicated on length and athleticism. However, Comanche's only 215 pounds so, like Markkanen and Ristic, shorter but stronger players can give him issues.
Who should MSU fans keep an eye on that they may not know?
Kadeem Allen, for sure.
Allen is Arizona's most complete player. He's 6'3" with a 6'9" wingspan and great lateral quickness, allowing him to guard multiple positions. Miller said the other day that he's the best defender he's had at Arizona (I don't buy it because Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were pretty amazing), and Allen's no joke on that end. He's adept at forcing turnovers too.
Offensively, Allen plays the 1 and the 2, and does most of his damage at the rim, though he can hit a jumper from time to time. His scoring output is expected to increase this season because he's playing off the ball more, and because he's a fifth-year senior.
Allen often gets overlooked because of the freshmen and players like Allonzo Trier, but he shouldn't. He's the "heart and soul" of the team, as Miller said, and is just a good, all-around player — probably Arizona's best.
Comanche (likely) returning changes things a lot. Arizona was down to seven scholarship players in the exhibition season, but Comanche gives them a solid eight-man rotation. Not having Trier hurts, but there's enough skill on the wing to somewhat replace him.
I personally think this game is a toss-up. I wasn't impressed by what I saw from the Wildcats in the preseason, and I admittedly don't know a whole lot about this year's Michigan State team, aside from that they're young (but talented) and have a few players out with injuries. Honestly, it seems like these teams are in a pretty similar spot.
But, given Arizona's height advantage and Comanche's return, I'll give them the edge.