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What to watch when Arizona hosts ‘alarming’ Georgia Southern Eagles

NCAA Basketball: Houston Baptist at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

After a few games in paradise, the Arizona Wildcats return to the friendly confines of McKale Center on Thursday to host the Georgia Southern Eagles at 7 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Networks.

The Wildcats (4-2), who have not played in over a week, are coming off a 1-2 trip in the Maui Invitational in which they beat Iowa State before losing to Gonzaga and Auburn.

The Eagles (5-1) enter Thursday’s game off a defeat to East Tennessee State, their first loss of the season.

KenPom ranks Georgia Southern as the No. 137 team in the country and gives the Eagles an 18 percent chance of winning in Tucson. Arizona checks in as KenPom’s No. 57 team.

Here are some things to watch Thursday.

Run and gun

Expect a high-scoring game, as Georgia Southern ranks fourth in the country in scoring (97.0).

The Eagles play at the ninth-fastest pace in the country and score with tremendous efficiency, posting the second-best field goal percentage in college basketball (.583). They have the second-highest 2-point field goal percentage in the country (63.8), quite a feat for a team whose tallest starter is 6-foot-7.

Georgia Southern has four players who average double figures in scoring, including star point guard Tookie Brown, who was named first-team Preseason All-Sun Belt.

“Georgia Southern is gonna be one of our biggest challenges all season, not just in nonconference, but in our conference season,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “I like to use the word alarming when describing their talent, but part of it is exciting because if you’re a team that plays Georgia Southern, you’re trying to beat an excellent team. It’s a game that in March will have great meaning for all of us, not just Arizona.

“But I look at their talent level, they’re experienced talent, their point guard is outstanding. They have multiple 1,000-point scorers and those two guys aren’t even the leading scorer on this year’s team. ... They play an exciting style, they really push the ball up and down the court, very well coached, have a confidence about them.”

The Eagles have two weaknesses offensively — rebounding and 3-point shooting. They are 334th (of 353) in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 342nd in 3-point percentage, making only a quarter of their shots from distance.

A full 40 minutes

Miller lamented Arizona’s inability to play 40 minutes of quality basketball in Maui, which led to second-half collapses in the losses to Gonzaga and Auburn.

If the Wildcats tail off at the end of Thursday’s game, they could be in for a similar fate.

Miller noted how the Eagles erased a 22-point lead en route to a 98-89 win over George Mason earlier in the month. Georgia Southern outscored George Mason 64-35 in the second half and 38-24 in the final 10 minutes.

“I think that just says it all,” he said. “We expect a really a hard fought game. We’ll have to play better than we played in Maui for 40 minutes to beat them.”

Will Doutrive add to depth?

You know what would help avoid a second-half meltdown? Contributions from the bench, something Arizona did not get in Maui.

Looking for a spark, it sounds like Miller could give freshman wing Devonaire Doutrive some run Thursday.

The former four-star recruit, who played just one minute in Maui, has scored nine points in 22 minutes this year on 4-of-5 shooting, to go along with three rebounds and an assist.

If Doutrive does play, it will be interesting to see whose playing time he cuts into. Alex Barcello and Dylan Smith seem like the obvious options, but he could take some minutes from a host of players instead of just one, including a starter or two.

“He’s close,” Miller said of Doutrive. “It’s just that when you play another player, you’re going to take away from someone else. And sometimes it’s a starter. You just want continuity and we want to put Devonaire in a good light. He’s not that far off. You’ve seen when he’s gotten his opportunities here in McKale, that he’s made some good plays. Like any freshman, there’s a big learning curve on defense and I think he’s getting better every day. But he’s talented, he has a great attitude and I think being able to put him in a game, it’s something we need to find out because he could help us with some energy and play making that that we need right now off the bench.”

Feeding the post

Of all the things Miller learned from the Maui Invitational, one is that Arizona needs to find a way to get Ryan Luther and Chase Jeter more touches near the basket.

That should be a priority against the Eagles, whose rotation ranks 336th in the country in average height, making them one of the smallest teams in college basketball.

Jeter has scored in double figures in five of six games this season (the other he fouled out after 19 minutes), so he has been pretty consistent on that end of the floor. Luther, however, has been an enigma.

The Pittsburgh transfer has scored in double figures twice, including a 17-point game against Cal Poly, but was also held scoreless twice in Maui, ghosting when Arizona could have sorely used his scoring.

Part of that can be explained by him dealing with an injury to his non-shooting hand, but the rest can be explained by Arizona not getting him the ball in positions to score as well as Luther being overly passive. The senior took a combined five shots in the final two games in Maui.

“I find the challenge offensively here is we have so many new faces that it almost takes a month of this year to really understand what works, what doesn’t, maybe what we can do to better suit each of these guys individually on offense,” Miller said.

“And I wish I had it right from day one, but some of our errors in Maui, it’s just organization. It’s just being more organized, being more detailed, putting someone like Ryan Luther in a position to call his number in and make sure that we get a balance of throwing him the ball around the basket more. He’s not someone who’s going to take it upon himself to do that. He’s going to have to do it with our help. That’s one of many things we learned in Maui.”

Three’s company

Arizona has been a streaky 3-point shooting team this season, and Maui was a trip to forget in that regard. The Wildcats shot 25 for 76 (33 percent) from the arc away from the mainland, with Justin Coleman and Brandon Randolph the only ones making a high percentage of their triples.

Luther (2 for 7), Brandon Williams (3 for 17) and Dylan Smith (0 for 7) all struggled mightily.

Arizona has to shoot respectably from 3 this year to have any sort of success, and what’s a better way to get on track than facing a Georgia Southern team that’s allowing its opponents to shoot 37 percent from behind the arc?