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Arizona basketball: Three things we learned from the Wildcats’ win over Michigan State

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A wild way to start the season

NCAA Basketball: Armed Forces Classic-Arizona vs Michigan State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday evening in Honolulu, the Arizona Wildcats kicked off their season with a game to remember, stunning the Michigan State Spartans on a Kadeem Allen coast-to-coast bucket with 1.9 seconds remaining to steal a 65-63 victory.

Coming into the contest, there were plenty of questions about this Wildcat squad. How will they fare without Allonzo Trier? Can the three freshmen make a difference on such a large stage for their debut? And most of all, can this team shoot?

Plenty of questions still remain. But, even though the season is just one day old, a lot was answered. Here are three things we learned about these Wildcats during Friday night’s classic:

ACTIVE HANDS

The defense wasn’t perfect on Friday. After all, Miles Bridges put on a show worthy of a slam dunk contest. And the Wildcats were down by 15 in, what felt like, just mere seconds into the game.

But when the defense woke up, their athleticism and activity was something to behold. Arizona caused 19 Spartan turnovers during the game and 12 of those were outright steals by Wildcat defenders. For reference, Arizona turned the ball over 14 times, but only four of those were actual Michigan State steals.

A +5 turnover difference and +8 steal difference is something that Sean Miller will take every night of the week. This defense will continue to be a work in progress as there are a lot of new pieces. It will need to be as there were some missed assignments, slow rotations, and trouble in transition. But the instincts shown by Kadeem Allen (3 steals), Parker Jackson-Cartwright (3 steals) and Juco transfer, Keanu Pinder (2 steals) were a very encouraging sign of what this defense is capable of.

KOBI REFUSES TO BE FORGOTTEN

In a season that has been billed as “The Year of the Freshman” by a lot of media, it seems like every school has a new guy that’s being talked up.

Arizona’s kid in the spotlight leading into Friday night was Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen. He had himself a fine debut against the Spartans with 13 points and six rebounds. He certainly proved that his shooting stroke is as good as advertised.

But Markkanen wasn’t the Wildcat freshman that stole the show in Honolulu. That distinction goes to Kobi Simmons.

The 6-foot-5 five-star recruit from Atlanta with a vertical that rivals gravity took center stage in the Armed Forces Classic, leading Arizona in scoring with 18 points on 4-of-7 shooting. He knocked down two three’s and went 8-of-10 from the line as well.

This could very well be Simmons’ time to shine on offense if he can continue to put together performances like that. Rawle Alkins could have trouble adjusting to the college game simply because he’s built like a linebacker and referees will continue to call offensive fouls on him because he sends opponents flying the second he lowers his shoulder. Allonzo Trier’s status is still up in the air. And Markkanen’s propensity to shoot actually helps clear the lane as he draws defenders to the outside, giving Kobi a chance to penetrate.

The opportunities are there, and it appears that Kobi is more than willing to take them. Moral of the story is: Kobi Simmons has game, folks.

GLASS TROUBLES

It can’t be all positive despite the fact that Arizona beat a fellow powerhouse on a national stage on a last-second shot in beautiful Hawaii.

Arizona had a HUGE size advantage against the Spartans and weren’t particularly able to take advantage.

After getting outrebounded in their final exhibition game against Chico State, Arizona took on a Michigan State team whose tallest active player comes in at 6-foot-8 and have lost their two best rebounders to injuries to start the season.

Meanwhile, Arizona sported lineups on Friday night that paired two seven footers or at times, Chance Comanche (6’11”), Markkanen (7’0”) and Pinder (6’9”) were all on the floor together. All three of those guys have a size advantage over every active Michigan State player.

And yet, the rebound war was a draw on Friday night, on both the offensive and defensive ends. This isn’t something that you want to see from a team that had such an advantage in that category entering the game. Especially from junior Dusan Ristic, who had a rough game with only three rebounds, and he seemed to get bullied a bit in the paint against the Spartans.

Is this nitpicking? Absolutely. Parker Jackson-Cartwright, the smallest player on the floor, wrestled away a crucial rebound in the final minutes. Keanu Pinder provided a huge rebounding spark off the bench in the first half while Arizona was trailing. The Wildcats were, in fact, crashing the glass. The rebounding totals could just be a result of two nitty-gritty teams doing what they do best.

But with Arizona having the wonderful benefit of size, winning the rebound battle is going to be expected of this group on a game-to-game basis and could easily be the difference between a win and a loss. It will be interesting to see where that comes from in the coming weeks.