Tip-off is set for noon MT on the Pac-12 Network. Here are some things to watch for.
The injury bug
New Mexico State is supposed to be one of Arizona’s toughest opponents this season. It returns nine players from last year’s team that went 30-5 and lost by a point to No. 5 seed Auburn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies were then unanimously picked to win the WAC this preseason.
However, they have been decimated by injuries so far. Of note, starting point guard AJ Harris has not played this year due to a broken finger. He averaged 9.5 points per game last season.
Meanwhile, fellow guard and last year’s leading scorer Terrell Brown (11.4 PPG) is questionable for Sunday’s game due to a groin injury and backup point guard Jabari Rice (8.7 PPG) sprained his wrist Thursday against Southern and did not play in the second half.
New Mexico State's Terrell Brown (groin) is questionable for Sunday's game at Arizona, per Chris Jans. Aggies have had an injury filled start to the year.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 16, 2019
NMSU is also without another backup wing in Clayton Henry, one of its best shooters.
While these ailments certainly help the Wildcats’ chance of winning, it strips them of an opportunity to see how they measure up against an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, which, at this point in the season, is arguably more important.
NMSU lost to UTEP by 15 in its second game of the season and ranks 76th in KenPom’s ratings, 22 spots below where it ranked last season. KenPom gives Arizona an 84 percent win probability with a projected score of 74-64.
Can Zeke keep it going?
Arizona freshman phenom Zeke Nnaji has started his college career at a torrid pace, averaging 21.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game with a ridiculous 81.2 field goal percentage, easily the highest in the country among 20-point-per-game scorers.
The Aggies are a small team, often starting 6-foot-8 Ivan Aurrecoechea at center, so the 6-foot-11 Nnaji should be able to continue dominating the paint. It’s just of a matter of if he can replicate the earth-shattering damage he has done in his first three games.
Nnaji’s hot start has helped conceal the fact that Chase Jeter has yet to find his groove. Coming off a career season in which he averaged 10.9 PPG, the redshirt senior center is averaging just 4.3 points per game on 33.3 percent shooting.
And while Jeter has been rebounding at the best rate of his career—12.8 boards per 40 minutes—the Wildcats will need more from him offensively once they get into the meat of their schedule or else he risks losing playing time to guys like Nnaji, Ira Lee, Stone Gettings, and even Christian Koloko.
One way it is easy to tell this year’s Arizona team is much better than last year’s squad is the Wildcats badly struggled any time Jeter had a rough night or missed a game to due to injury.
This season, they have the depth to overcome it. Easily.
“Chase hasn’t found his rhythm, that’s on us,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after Jeter had two points against San Jose State. “We have to work with him, we have to get the ball to him in a good position. He’ll be fine, he’s experienced, I watch him every day in practice. He’s doing really well. He had six rebounds in 18 minutes, he does a lot of other things, but scoring he really hasn’t really settled in and you can kind of feel that. We have to work with him to get him to get him confident.”
Avoiding slow starts
At the same time, you wonder how Jeter’s lack of production is affecting how Arizona starts games. The Wildcats only scored eight points in the first six minutes against SJSU. Against Illinois, they were held to eight points in the first five minutes, as the Illini jumped out to a 15-8 lead.
Arizona also started the second half slow against SJSU, going almost seven minutes without a field goal. A similar offensive drought against a quality team could be extremely costly.
“We weren’t ready,” Miller said of that second half. “Believe me, it wasn’t for lack of effort in locker room. Anytime you have a big lead, you kind of warn your team, come out and be ready to go. Five turnovers, six fouls. Sometimes when you push the ball like we do, you want things to be easy. You can push the ball and not get a good shot early. And we weren’t as patient and when you’re not patient sometimes it can go the wrong direction. It’s a great learning opportunity. And I think a lot of our guys will be better the next time we come out.”
Controlling the pace
Speaking of pushing the ball, NMSU could reveal whether or not Arizona is serious about playing at a fast pace this year.
The Aggies love to slow the game down, ranking 308th (of 353) in the country in KenPom’s adjusted tempo stat. NMSU is especially deliberate on offense, ranking 348th in average possession length.
But the Aggies have had some turnover issues this season and have missed 50 of their 73 3-point attempts, so there should be some opportunities for Arizona to get out and run.
Seeing that Miller and players like Nico Mannion and Josh Green have said they play best when they are pushing the tempo, it will be important for them to capitalize on those chances and not get bogged down in a halfcourt game.
Crashing the boards
It’s hard to find any glaring flaws in Arizona’s game to this point. Rebounding might not be one, but it definitely isn’t a strength, either.
The Wildcats are a slightly above average offensive rebounding team, but a slightly below average defensive rebounding team. New Mexico State is good at both, but particularly on the offensive end, where it ranks 26th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.
Aurrecoechea is a beast in that regard, ranking 39th in the country in that category. It helps that a high volume of NMSU’s shot attempts (46.6 percent) are 3s, creating lots of long rebounds, which are typically easier for the offensive team to corral.
No matter, offensive rebounds can be a great equalizer (as can 3-pointers), so the Wildcats will have to make a concerted effort to crash the glass. Unfortunately, this could be one reason why they won’t be able to get out in transition as much as they have in their first three games.
“Their toughness, their quickness, how hard they play, they take great pride in those areas,” Miller said. “What I’ll tell you is it’s going to be amazing test and we have to be ready to go.”