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What to watch for when Arizona hosts San Jose State on Thursday

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The 19th-ranked Arizona Wildcats (2-0) return to the hardwood Thursday when they host the San Jose State Spartans (1-1) of the Mountain West Conference.

Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network. Here are some things to watch for.

An easy win

San Jose State has been one of the worst teams in college basketball over the past several seasons. It has not had a winning record since 2011 and went a combined 8-53 in 2017-18 and 2018-19, ranking 301st and 343rd (of 353) in KenPom’s national ratings, respectively.

And while Arizona coach Sean Miller did point out that the Spartans beat a usually-decent Hofstra team on the road in their season-opener, he basically conceded that this game is supposed to be a cupcake game squeezed between two good opponents in Illinois and New Mexico State.

“They got a coach that’s trying to build a program, so it’s hard to look at where they were a year ago and maybe where they can be this year, and like everything you want to have balance in your schedule,” he said. “We just played a team Illinois from the Big Ten that has high aspirations this season, so we play San Jose State. We also have a very, very challenging, difficult team coming in this weekend as our second game in New Mexico State. So over the long course, you want to have good balance.”

For what it’s worth, KenPom gives Arizona a 99 percent win probability against San Jose State, with a projected score of 84-56. Vegas lists the Wildcats as 30-point favorites.

Walk-on watch should be in full effect.

Doutrive decision

Miller said Tuesday that “there’s a chance” Devonaire Doutrive returns from his suspension Thursday assuming a few things fall into place by then.

I personally expect Doutrive to play at some point this week, and if he does, it will be interesting to see how the Wildcats break him back into the lineup. Eventually he will probably wind up starting at the 2, but because he has missed two games plus an exhibition, he will have to earn that designation.

And, to be fair to guys like Dylan Smith and Jemarl Baker Jr., Doutrive still has a lot to prove. He’s received a lot of praise from Miller and his teammates for the strides he has made since his freshman season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate to the games.

This, after all, is still a guy who averaged just 3.0 points per game last season.

Nico’s aggression

Nico Mannion set the tone for the Wildcats in their win over Illinois on both ends. He was looking for his shot from the get-go, as well as flying everywhere defensively, deflecting passes and forcing a pair of jump balls.

Having that much success in his first game against a major-conference opponent—he finished with 22 points and nine assists—could just be a sign of things of bigger things to come for the McDonald’s All-American.

“I was really excited not just to watch Nico’s progress, but I do believe confidence is a big deal,” Miller said. “And he was more sure of himself. We want him to have that attack mentality. I think not only does it make him the best he can be, but it sets the tone for our team’s offense and for that matter on defense as well. So we want them to be like that and he took a big step forward and some other guys did as well.”

Christian clocking in

Miller said it bothered him that he could not find a way to get Christian Koloko some minutes against Illinois, so expect the freshman 7-footer to get some run against the Spartans. Especially since San Jose State is actually a very tall team, ranking eighth in the country in average height.

Its starting frontcourt consists of 6-foot-10 Eduardo Lane and 6-foot-9 Craig LeCesne, while 6-foot-11 Samuel Japhet-Mathias is the first big off the bench and actually plays more than Lane.

“You can only play so many players,” Miller said. “It’s very difficult to play eight, nine get into 10. And there’ll be some nights Christian will be a contributor and maybe some others that he won’t. In no way shape or form does that mean that he’s not playing as well. I talked to him after the (Illinois) game. The best years, the best times for Christian are in front of him. That’s obvious to everybody on our team. If you watch us practice, you would see that. He’s made tremendous improvements from the time he stepped on campus in June until now, and I think he’ll continue to do that.

“Sometimes you’ll see him in games and make good plays. And sometimes it’s going to be more behind the scenes, but his future’s incredibly bright. We’re thrilled to have him and I like to play everybody. It’s just in that 40 minutes, you have to be careful. Sometimes you can overplay it. By trying to get everybody in, you take away from players’ confidence and those roles that we’re talking about trying to develop,”

Josh’s jumper

Miller talked about Mannion’s confidence and how that manifested into him being aggressive from the opening whistle against Illinois.

In Josh Green’s case, evidence of his increased confidence can be seen in his jump shot. It isn’t the strength of his game—defense and slashing are—but he knocked them down without hesitation against Illinois, going 4 for 7 from 3.

With Mannion and Zeke Nnaji commanding so much attention from defenses, Green is going to have countless open looks this season. Not to mention teams would prefer him to stay on the perimeter than drive into the lane.

His ability to knock them down at a high rate could determine whether Arizona has a good offense or a great one this season.

“He played with a lot of confidence, his 3-point shooting has really improved,” Miller said after the Illinois game. “I would say looking at him when he first came in June, because he missed a lot of time with his shoulder, he’s really worked at it, and you work hard, good things happen. But he’s a fluid shooter. I mean, you see him shoot the ball, it looks like it’s going to go in.”

Keep pounding

Every game, even against a cupcake like San Jose State, is an opportunity to learn something about this Arizona team that, while impressive so far, is still very much a work in progress.

That becomes doubly true if another player—Doutrive—is introduced to the rotation Thursday. He will have to take minutes from someone, if not multiple players. Plus his skill set is much different than that of Baker, Smith, and Max Hazzard, who do their best work behind the arc.

“We know more now than we did a couple weeks back, but I do think that if you watch Zeke and Josh and Nico as they continue to get both feet on the ground and learn more about college basketball, I think they’re very consistent players every day in practice, and you start to see that they’re going to be able to do that same thing in the game,” Miller said.

“And then we have a lot of other guys that are that are talented, and we have to make sure we as a coaching staff do a good job of giving them roles, defining those roles, and then as a player you have to buy in. You have to kind of be what our team needs you to be. But I do think our team’s chemistry is good and we have a lot of guys that are contributing. And when you win it’s a lot easier to rationalize with players and talk to players about ‘this is what we need you for’. So hopefully we can stay on that winning track and again continue to grow.”