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November 11, 2012
For months now, Arizona's 2012-13 roster has heard the same questions over and over again.
How will Mark Lyons fit in as the point guard after playing off the ball at Xavier? What will the Wildcats look like with a true 7-foot freshman center in Kaleb Tarczewski? Can a team that missed the NCAA tournament last season make a run to the Final Four with the nation's No. 3-ranked recruiting class? Is Kevin Parrom healthy after a tragic and emotional junior year?
Everyone can stop asking, the players can stop talking. College basketball is back, and the 12th-ranked Wildcats open the regular season against Charleston Southern Sunday afternoon at McKale Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. MST.
After seeing the same faces at the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium practice facility for the better part of 4 1/2 months, sophomore guard Nick Johnson is ready to finally face a real opponent.
"All the work we put in this summer, it just feels great to finally know that this one counts," said Johnson, who spent the offseason hoisting 20,000 shots along with Parrom.
When the 'Cats weren't on the practice floor, they were in the weight room. A number of players - both new and returning - transformed their bodies and changed eating habits to prepare for the grind of a 30-plus-games slate.
Leading the way was 6-7 senior Solomon Hill, who slimmed down to 220 pounds to prepare himself for a switch back to his natural small forward position after spending 2011-12 down low out of necessity.
But size and depth are no longer an issue. In addition to Tarczewski, head coach Sean Miller brought in 6-10 Grant Jerrett and 6-8 Brandon Ashley to help a team that could barely find eight quality bodies to put on the floor toward the end of last season.
But perhaps the biggest addition of all, and one that increased the lofty expectations for the Pac-12 Conference preseason favorites, was Lyons.
The 6-1 guard puts a stop to the revolving door at point guard left behind by troubled ex-Wildcat Josiah Turner, who left the program after just one season marred by suspensions. Lyons may not be a true, pass-first point guard, but Miller said he does not want the Schenectady, N.Y., native he once recruited to Xavier to "reinvent" himself.
"Mark is a work in progress," Miller said. "There are things he brings to the table that are great qualities. We want him to take shots and score because he can do that. Firepower at that position is something that you can't take for granted."
Added Lyons: "Fresh new start, fresh team. Just can't wait for the games to start. Feels like I've been practicing forever."
In 2011-12, the Wildcats won 23 games but were bounced out of the first round of the NIT. Before the campaign, UA had a sense it would struggle after losing an exhibition contest to Seattle Pacific, a Division II program.
After blowing through this year's two-game exhibition slate with a 39.5-point average margin of victory, Hill said it's a "very different feeling," in comparison.
"It just gives you confidence into the first game on Sunday," Hill added.
Opponent No. 1 will be the preseason favorites of the Big South. Winners of 19 games a season ago, Charleston Southern got underway on college basketball's opening night Friday with a 68-58 loss at Charlotte.
The Buccaneers (0-1) had yet to yet to play when Miller was asked about the matchup earlier in the day, and he wanted to wait until after their opener to share an opinion on what to expect.
But the fourth-year head coach does know that his guards will have to deal with sophomore Saah Nimley, who is generously listed at 5-8. In the loss, Nimley led all scorers with 20 points but converted just 7 of 20 shot attempts - including 3 of 12 from the 3-point line.
"Quick on defense, really fast with the ball, gets his team into the offense," Miller said of Nimley. "They really play a fast tempo, and a lot of it is because of him.
"Our whole team will be challenged because of him, but our guards will, in particular."