After two exhibitions, the Arizona Wildcats will finally take the court in a game that counts Friday, opening the regular season against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks at 6 p.m. MST in McKale Center.
Expectations are sky-high for the third-ranked Wildcats to begin the year, some — including the players — even believing it’s Final Four or bust.
“I do think it’s a fair expectation,” said UA forward Emmanuel Akot. “We have a very talented team. We all have an all-in mentality. We all know our roles. We all know what we have to do to win a national championship and that’s what we’re striving for.”
However, the Wildcats will be far from full strength against NAU.
Arizona will be without Rawle Alkins (foot), Keanu Pinder (suspension) and Dylan Smith (suspension), while Brandon Randolph is questionable with a concussion.
Still, head coach Sean Miller said Friday is an “incredible opportunity” for the Wildcats to improve.
“In our case with so many new faces, like you witnessed from the first exhibition game until the second, there can be a night-and-day dramatic difference in the group because of how young we are,” he said Tuesday. “That’s our focus.”
Arizona has not shown any real areas of weakness this far, besides an uninspiring defensive rebounding effort against Eastern New Mexico.
Highly-touted freshman Deandre Ayton was as good — perhaps even better — in the exhibition season than advertised, averaging 26 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.0 blocks in 25.0 minutes while shooting 19-25 from the field, 1-1 from 3, and 13-14 from the free throw line.
Akot, who is expected to start at small forward if Randolph is out, was another freshman bright spot, displaying an impressive all-around game.
The Canadian had six points, seven rebounds, and six assists in Arizona’s 91-53 win over Chico State last Sunday.
Ayton and Akot will be surrounded by veterans Allonzo Trier, Dusan Ristic, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
Trier, who averaged 17.2 points per game last season, is the most heralded of the three, recently being named an AP Preseason All-American.
Jackson-Cartwright missed last Wednesday’s exhibition because of ankle injury, but returned Sunday vs. Chico State and had a stellar game, tallying 14 points, four assists and three rebounds in 28 minutes, while shooting 4-4 from the field, 2-2 from 3, and 4-6 from the free throw line.
“Like Allonzo, he has overcome injuries almost every year and I think we’re going to see the best version of him as a player (this year),” Miller said of PJC. “We did the other day. His ability to make the other four players better really stands out when you watch him out there.”
The Wildcats enter Friday as 34-point favorites over the Lumberjacks, and the last time these two teams played Arizona won 92-37.
In all, Arizona has won 31 straight against the Lumberjacks and 40 straight at home against non-conference foes.
NAU went 9-23 last season with 6-12 mark in the Big Sky (10th place), but experienced a large amount of roster turnover during the offseason, so Miller isn’t sure what to expect Friday.
“That’s the hard part of the season-opener,” he said. “You don’t really have a lot, but we’ll do the best we can of being the most ready that we can be.”
The Lumberjacks lost their top five scorers from a season ago and their top three rebounders.
Jojo Anderson is their most prominent returner. The 6-foot-3 junior averaged 7.4 points per game on 40.3 percent shooting last season.
NAU added eight newcomers to the program, including Division I transfers Gino Littles and Malcolm Allen, who are listed as projected starters on the school-produced game notes.
Allen played sparingly in three seasons at Stanford, while Littles averaged 6.7 PPG at UT San Antonio last season.
NAU also added junior college All-American Ruben Fuamba, a 6-foot-9 senior known for his size, athleticism, shot blocking and rebounding.
Head coach Jack Murphy, who worked under Lute Olson at Arizona from 1998-2006, told NAU Athletics that the Lumberjacks will play a “varied” style of basketball this year.
“We would ultimately like to take advantage of our altitude and play a little bit faster than we have in the past. When you want to play that way, you have to take care of the basketball and we didn't do a good job of that last season. We were one of the worst teams in the league in turnovers, so we really need to take care of the ball better to play the way we want to,” he said.
“Defensively, we want to get up and pressure people. Whether that is a full-court press, or in the halfcourt with solid man-to-man, we want to create turnovers and create easy baskets in transition. I think you'll see us develop as the year goes on defensively, with us being able to add more schemes and concepts in there.”
Miller, who said Murphy is a “great friend” of his, is anxious to get the season started.
“It’s always tough to play against somebody who you really like a lot and respect, but I’m excited about playing NAU because it’s right on a lot of levels,” Miller said. “Two in-state schools get a chance to square off on the opening night of college basketball, so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
How to watch Friday’s opener
Time: 6 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Live stream: Pac-12.com/live
When will they be back?
- Arizona wing Brandon Randolph (concussion) is questionable vs. NAU. Here is our latest update on his situation.
- Arizona wing Rawle Alkins remains out until December with a broken foot he suffered in the offseason.
- Arizona wing Dylan Smith is suspended vs. NAU for violating an unspecified team rule. He is expected to return Sunday vs. UMBC.
- Arizona forward Keanu Pinder is suspended vs. NAU for violating an NCAA rule. He will return Sunday vs. UMBC.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire