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What we learned from Arizona’s win over Penn in the Wooden Legacy tournament

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NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Arizona Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 14 Arizona Wildcats knocked off the Penn Quakers 92-82 on Friday to clinch a spot in Sunday’s Wooden Legacy championship game vs. the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in Anaheim, Calif.

Our full recap can be found here, and here are some additional takeaways.

Nico Mannion is different from other Sean Miller point guards

A day after recording a career-high 11 assists and knocking down the game-winner against Pepperdine, Mannion dropped a career-high 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting against Penn.

From floaters to pull-ups to a pair of 3-pointers, Mannion had everything going. The freshman scored 15 points in the second half, helping Arizona withstand a late run by Penn that saw the Quakers trim a 16-point deficit to four with 3:03 left.

That’s when Mannion sank a floater, then flung a mind-bending, one-handed pass over a defender’s head to a cutting Josh Green for a layup that put Arizona up seven. The lead only grew from there.

That feed was a reminder that as impressive as Mannion is as a scorer, what makes him special is his ability to combine that with elite distributing skills.

Arizona has had good scoring guards (Mark Lyons) and solid passing guards (T.J. McConnell) under Sean Miller, but Mannion is the first who can do both at an extremely high level—and it is why he is a threat to take over any game, at any time.

His killer instinct doesn’t hurt, either. Like analyst Jon Crispin said during the broadcast, “when Nico Mannion is making shots and he is smiling, you know you’re in trouble.”

“I was just trying to be aggressive and trying to make plays,” Mannion said. “I hit a couple and started feeling good. We were just playing well together. We were pushing the ball in transition and I think that’s when we’re at our best. I was getting good looks; we were all getting good looks and it just made it that much better.”

Zeke Nnaji’s post passing is sweet

If Nnaji flew under the radar early in the season, he isn’t now. Defenses are doubling him and he is getting better at making them pay.

The freshman forward had three assists Friday, including a pair of beautiful dimes from the low block that resulted in easy buckets for Chase Jeter. Take a gander:

Jeter finished with a season-high 19 points, and a lot of it was because of how much attention his frontcourt partner was commanding.

Even still, Nnaji had 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting plus a 6-of-6 mark from the free-throw line to along with a team-high seven rebounds.

“A lot of teams have been scouting and seeing what Zeke has been capable of, so early on teams were starting to double team him and he’s able to find me out of the trap,” said Jeter, who went 8 for 9 from the field.

Arizona’s porous 3-point defense is no fluke

Pepperdine’s hot shooting wasn’t a one-off. Arizona has legit issues defending the 3-point line. Penn went 13 for 34 from behind the arc, including 10 makes in the second half. That allowed the Quakers to make things interesting even though they trailed by as many as 17 points.

“I‘ve never seen so many 3s go in in two days,” Miller said. “Some of it is clearly who we’re playing. Some of it is our defense, we have to get better and I really think the early part of our season, we’re going to only go as far as our defense improves.”

Arizona currently has the No. 6 offense in the country, per KenPom, but the No. 51 defense, a number that won’t cut it come March.

Wake Forest is 10 for 42 from 3 in the Wooden Legacy and shooting 33.9 percent for the season, so it will be an ominous sign for Arizona if they catch fire Sunday.

“I do think we were better through stretches of this game on defense, but we have to continue to improve, we really do,” Miller said. “Some of it is just we have a lot of young guys out there and these types of teams, like Pepperdine and Penn, they drive young guys crazy. They just have never seen the movement and the shooting at these spots like they’re dealing with right now.

“But that’s a good part about being here at this tournament. We’ve seen two unique styles. We’ve been on a neutral court, and we came here to compete for the championship. It’s been four or five years since we’ve won one of these. And we have a chance here on Sunday against Wake Forest and we’re really excited. The ACC is a great league and they’re a part of it so we have to be ready to go.”

This tournament is taking a toll physically

The downside of a tournament like this? The physical toll it has taken on Arizona.

Nnaji suffered what appeared to be a shoulder injury Thursday against Pepperdine and both Green and Mannion got shaken up Friday after driving to the hoop.

Green took a hard fall but stayed in the game. Mannion landed awkwardly after making a layup and immediately clenched his right side before exiting the game and briefly heading to the locker room.

Mannion returned and made some critical plays, so it’s probably nothing to be too concerned about. Arizona has Saturday off, which should help him be in decent enough shape for Sunday’s championship game.

But, wait, there’s more! Stone Gettings, who played a season-low nine minutes, reportedly took a blow to the face, suffered a black eye, and will be monitored for a concussion. It’s a good thing Arizona has almost a whole week off before heading to Baylor next Saturday.

Jemarl Baker Jr. is so dang valuable

When Mannion was in scoring mode, Baker was often playing the role of facilitator. He had three assists and zero turnovers, bumping his ATO ratio to 26 to 3 on the season.

Two plays stand out: Baker found Mannion on the wing for a 3 on double pin-down screen, then lobbed an entry pass to Nnaji in semi-transition for an easy bucket.

Baker also buried a pair of triples, and is now shooting 56 percent (14 of 25) from 3. Arizona was +10 with the Kentucky transfer on the court. Only Ira Lee (+15) fared better.

I’ve written it before, but it’s worth repeating: Baker receiving immediate eligibility has been a season-changing event for the Wildcats. He is filing Brandon Williams‘ void nicely.