Tucson, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) - The sixth-ranked Arizona Wildcats get their season underway on Friday when the Cal Poly Mustangs pay a visit to the McKale Center for a non-conference clash.
The last two years have been almost carbon copies for Cal Poly. The Mustangs have won 18 games and pushed into the Big West Conference Tournament semifinals in each of the last two years. The Mustangs really found their groove down the stretch with wins in eight of their final nine regular season games. For the Mustangs to earn their first ever NCAA Tournament bid they will need to ride the steady post play of Chris Eversley now that point guard Dylan Royer is no longer around. Eversley is surrounded by three other returning starters so it is likely the Mustangs will be able to compete each night.
The Wildcats have long been a fixture in the NCAA Tournament but in the last four seasons they have seen just two bids after a run of 25 straight years without missing the field. Last year the Wildcats posted a 27-8 overall record and a trip into the Sweet 16. However, LaQuinton Ross nailed a 3-pointer in the waning seconds to send a dagger through the Wildcats' title chances, when they lost to Ohio State in the round of 16. Sean Miller's squad this year has a pair of exciting newcomers in Aaron Gordon and former Duquesne guard T.J. McDonnell, who are meant to replace the departed Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons.
This is the first meeting between these teams as Division I programs. They did meet twice prior, when Cal Poly had yet to earn the D-I distinction, with Arizona taking both encounters.
Eversley (15.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg) is going to be critical for Cal Poly this season. An All-Big West first-team selection a year ago, Eversley is a skilled offensive threat that can rebound and make solid passes out of the post. Eversley will be joined on the inside by Brian Bennett (9.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg), who is less versatile but a solid performer nonetheless. While the frontcourt looks pretty much set in stone the backcourt has a few more issues. Royer (10.1 ppg) was the only other double-figure scorer for the Mustangs last season. Now Jamal Johnson (4.4 ppg) and Reese Morgan (5.9 ppg) need to grow into their starting roles immediately. Adding intrigue to the group is freshman Markel Leonard, who projects as the Mustangs' starting point guard right away. Leonard was a California state champion at Salesian High School. If Leonard develops quickly as a distributor it could go a long way for the Mustangs, who ranked eighth in the Big West last year in points (64.8 ppg), assists (13.8 pg) and field-goal percentage (.424).
While Kansas has Andrew Wiggins and Duke has Jabari Parker, the Wildcats have their own blue chip prospect in Gordon. The 6-foot-9 forward has already garnered comparison's to Blake Griffin and his athletic skill and size will go a long way in easing the loss of Hill (13.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg). Also helping is the addition of another big-time recruit in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is a long and strong defending forward. Brandon Ashley (7.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) was a starting forward last year, as was Kaleb Tarczewski (6.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), giving the Wildcats a strong group up front. In the backcourt, McConnell will fill in the spot left by Lyons (15.4 ppg), who led the team in scoring a year ago. McConnell (11.4 ppg, 5.5 apg, 2.8 spg) is not as prolific a scorer as Lyons but he doesn't need to be. McConnell's real value will come from his strong skill in finding open shooters and playing disruptive defense. Nick Johnson (11.5 ppg, 3.2 apg) will be another important part of the backcourt after starting last year.