Pac-12 hoops preview: With key losses, Arizona’s youth set to take reigns

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There’s losing a star player to the draft. There’s losing a key rotation player to graduation.

Then, there’s the case of Arizona.

Let’s start with Deandre Ayton. The consensus but simultaneously not-so-consensus No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft was destined to leave after one year the second he signed his letter of intent.

With a grown man’s body, the mobility of a gazelle and a salivating array of tools on offense, any team in the NBA would be willing to take on his talents.

Since everybody and their mama expected Ayton to leave, the simultaneous departures of Rawle Alkins and Allonzo “Iso Zo” Trier came as shocking, by default. Both players were integral pieces in last year’s rotation and went undrafted but have found their way onto teams, with Alkins signing a deal with the Chicago Bulls and Trier with the New York Knicks.

Down one more notch on Arizona’s totem pole are Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, both of whom departed because of graduation. Neither Ristic nor Jackson-Cartwright was good enough for the league, but both were very quality role players for the Wildcats.

Ayton. Alkins. Trier. Ristic. Jackson-Cartwright. Yes, Arizona has lost its entire starting five. So where does this leave the Wildcats?

As much as it hurts to lose three NBA-quality players and two very solid rotation pieces, the Wildcats are actually in pretty good shape moving forward.

Arizona will bring back sophomores Emmanuel Akot, Ira Lee, Brandon Randolph and Alex Barcello, all of whom were highly ranked prospects coming out of high school.

None of those four had the opportunity to see the floor for much of last year, but all four share the responsibility of ushering in the next chapter of Arizona basketball.

Of those four young Wildcats, Akot is arguably the most qualified to fill in as the program’s alpha dog. A five-star prospect out of high school, Akot was slated to play a featured role for Arizona last season before knee tendinitis derailed his year.

The 6’7”, 200-pound forward has drawn comparisons to Arizona alumnus Andre Iguodala, in that he is a playmaking wing who can put the clamps down on defense. If healthy next season, Akot should be instrumental in turning the Wildcats into a defensive stalwart.

Along with the returners, Arizona welcomes an enticing recruiting class, but amassing that talent was not easy.

The Wildcats lost both Jahvon Quinerly and Shareef O’Neal to respective decommitments and missed out on five-star prospect Jordan Brown, who selected Nevada over Arizona and Cal.

At one point, Arizona was without a single commitment deep into recruiting season, but the program managed to make something out of nothing.

Joining the Wildcats is a trio of four-star prospects in Brandon Williams, Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. Williams actually decommitted in the days after the Sean Miller scandal but recommited two months later.

On top of the incoming freshmen, Arizona will add Duke transfer Chase Jeter and graduate transfers Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther, all of whom could make an immediate impact.

Jeter was a five-star prospect coming out of high school but seldom played for the Blue Devils. Coleman is coming off a career-year at Samford, while Luther suffered a foot injury 10 games into last season his senior year at Pitt.

Arizona’s makeup as a team will be completely different this winter, but considering it has talent up and down the roster, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The biggest knock on the Wildcats, at least this year, in particular, is that the core is young, most of them being freshmen or sophomores.

Long-term plans are always a wash because of the draft, but if Arizona can hold onto most of this core, the 2019-20 season has the potential to be truly spectacular.

The Wildcats’ Class of 2019 already has two five-star prospects and ranks as one of the best in the nation. If Akot, Williams or any of the other young players can morph into All-Pac-12-level talents, a national championship may be in the program’s future.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.