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What to watch for in Arizona’s season-opener vs. NAU

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arizona-basketball-nau-season-opener-preview-starting-lineup-doutrive-nnaji-live-stream-channel-time Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats officially begin the 2019-20 campaign Wednesday when they host the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, who went 10-21 last year and were picked to finish eighth in the Big Sky.

Tip-off in McKale Center is set for 7 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network. Here are some things to watch for.

Nnaji’s health

Sophomore guard Devonaire Doutrive will not be suiting up as he remains suspended indefinitely, but the Wildcats should be getting Zeke Nnaji back after he sat out last Friday’s exhibition vs. Chico State with a sore ankle.

Head coach Sean Miller said Monday that the 6-foot-11 forward will play against NAU barring any setbacks in practice Monday or Tuesday. Miller added that Nnaji is “no question” a starter when healthy so it is probably safe to assume he will start against the Lumberjacks as well, adding a tremendous amount of skill, length and athleticism to the frontcourt.

If Nnaji doesn’t start, it will be Ira Lee, who had 10 points and 14 rebounds against Chico State.

Freshman flashes

Assuming Nnaji does start, Arizona will be giving the nod to three freshmen, the other two obviously being Nico Mannion and Josh Green. The highly-regarded duo struggled a bit against Chico State, combining for 21 points (on 18 shots) to go along with eight turnovers and six assists, with Mannion being responsible for all six.

So it goes when it comes to freshmen, particularly early in the season as they adjust to the size and speed of the college game and learn Arizona’s system.

“All of us, especially myself, we have to be patient with those guys and teach them and make sure that they’re growing and learning because they’re going to keep getting better,” Miller said. “They’re hard workers and they’re very talented players, but they just showed up here. It’s never quite as easy as you just snap your fingers and, man, you’re good.”

Not only that but Green has not played much basketball over the past year, missing several months with a pair of shoulder surgeries, including one in April. The 6-foot-6 wing had three turnovers against Chico State.

“Some of [his struggles] is just him getting into his rhythm,” Miller said. “He’s healthy now, but he’s really come on strong the last two weeks.”

As for Mannion, Miller said he has to focus on “being a winning player.”

“He’s very good. We’re counting on him,” Miller said. “He works hard every day. He’s incredibly coachable. He’s eager to learn, eager to learn from his mistakes. He had five turnovers the other night and looking at each of those turnovers and what is it that I could have done differently? How do I learn from that experience and take better care of the ball? Defensively, learning how to play and in today’s game in college. It’s faster, it’s different than high school. But he’s on the right track and he’s going to do a lot of good things.”

Ironically it was Christian Koloko, the one freshman that is not expected to have a major role this season, who looked the most comfortable against Chico State, albeit in an extremely limited sample size.

The 7-footer had four points and two rebounds in six minutes. If Nnaji plays, it seems unlikely Koloko will play any meaningful minutes against NAU.

3-point defense

Chico State shot 10 for 25 (40%) from 3 against Arizona, a mark that is not acceptable for Miller.

“We did a really poor job of defending the 3-point shot,” he said. “We knew going into the game that they shoot a lot of 3s. And when you attempt a lot of 3s, you can have one of those nights. For them to make 10 3-point shots against our defense was very disappointing. It’s I would say a point of emphasis for us as we move forward. You cannot allow teams to take 3-point shots 25 and make 10, shoot 40 percent in the games. It’s really hard to win that game when a team does that to you. So for us yesterday was about that, making sure that every shot is challenged and we can take it away and recognizing the power of that line.”

NAU shot 34.8 percent from 3 last season, around the nation’s average, but featured one of the top shooters in the country in sophomore Luke Avdalovic, who made 73 of his 148 3-point attempts (49.3%).

“Obviously we respect not only him but the firepower of their team,” Miller said of NAU, which returns five starters. “They can score, they can shoot, they have experience. We’re at our season opener and there’s still a lot of unknown.”

Who’s the leading scorer?

One unknown: Who will be Arizona’s leading scorer this season? The other night it was Chase Jeter, who logged 17 points, but it could be a different player every game.

“We’re very balanced, that’s the good news,” Miller said. “It’ll take some time for that to be sorted out. That’s a good question. You felt that a little bit out there tonight, but somebody’s got to remember is we have a couple guys that practice hard. Every game played a big role on the team that didn’t play in yet some other players that were thrust into maybe a different role than they normally are. And then you have Nico and Josh, who are really talented kids and players, but they’re freshmen. It’s going to take them a little bit of time to learn. They had their really good moments [against Chico State] and they probably had a few freshmen moments, which is to be expected.”

Dylan’s development

Redshirt senior Dylan Smith received the gold jersey this week, a reward for a strong week of practice.

That came after he had a rough night Chico State, scoring just two points on 1-of-6 shooting.

Still, Miller had a lot of praise for Smith at Monday’s press conference and it is clear that he will have a big role for the Wildcats this season, maybe even as a starter, even though he has been inconsistent in first two seasons in Tucson.

“Dylan is one of our team’s best perimeter players,” Miller said. “He’s one of our most experienced players. And he did a really good job the other night playing heavy minutes and having zero turnovers. That’s something we tried to talk to him about, cutting down and eliminating negative plays—and not matching a made 3 or a couple good plays with a turnover that hurts us. And that’s what experience starts to do for a player. And we’re hoping that in his case, you look at his overall game, that he’s more efficient.”

Murphy’s reunion

Things could be a little awkward for Arizona assistant coach Jack Murphy, as he will be sitting across from an NAU team that he was the head coach of the past seven seasons.

Murphy posted a 78-149 record in Flagstaff, but resigned to join Miller’s staff at the end of the 2018-19 campaign.

The Arizona bench is a familiar spot. Murphy graduated from the UA in 2002 and worked under the legendary Lute Olson for eight years in varying capacities including team manager, recruiting coordinator, administrative assistant, video coordinator and director of operations.

“Jack Murphy is maybe the perfect coach to come here at the perfect time,” Miller said on media day. “The reason why I say that is very seldom do you have a head coach, which we’ve had several head coaches that have come here and become assistants, and they all bring a wealth of experience. And there’s nothing like being in that that first seat. And then when you have the opportunity to be the assistant, I think you can really be a great one because you see things differently.

“So Jack has that experience, but yet he’s very youthful. He has a ton of energy, loves to recruit, and he also combines that head coaching experience with being in the fire at Memphis with Josh Pastner, recruiting a very high-level type of prospect. And I think the most important ingredient that Jack brings is he loves the University of Arizona. And we really need that at this time, for people to understand what a great place this is.

“He was here on in many roles with Coach Olson and he’s attached to some great former teams and players. He was one of them, he’s their peer, he saw things at a Final Four level. And I think if you think about that perspective that I just brought you can see why I’m so excited. And I think the players can mention that, our staff can mention that. And Jack also has no ego, which is remarkable. It’s hard to get a coach that’s talented with no ego, and he really fits in well with really all that we’re doing—recruiting, coaching, being a sounding board for someone like myself and he’s very familiar with Tucson. He knows what River Road means, he knows what the Foothills means, he knows that you gotta bring water when you hike the mountains in the summer. He’s not a foreigner to Tucson. He knows what makes this place tick.”