The 2019-2020 college basketball season is finally upon us, and the Arizona Wildcats officially opened their campaign Wednesday night at McKale Center with an impressive 91-52 win over NAU.
The Cats were much improved on both sides of the court from their narrow exhibition win over Chico State last Friday and they ended up dominating the Lumberjacks behind a Zeke Nnaji masterclass and an impressive defensive performance.
The UA held NAU to 31.5% shooting for the game.
While our full recap can be found here, here’s a breakdown of some the major positives and negatives from the night.
The freshman from Minnesota didn’t play against Chico State because of a minor ankle injury, but his official debut was more than worth the wait.
Nnaji dominated in his return to action, scoring 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting against the Lumberjacks, good for the most points in a season opener by an Arizona freshman in the Sean Miller era.
He added four rebounds, one assist, one block and one steal as well.
After the game Miller heaped praise on his power forward, comparing him to Derrick Williams, citing his combination of physicality and agility.
If Wednesday was any indication of how good Nnaji is going to be, Arizona might just have another future star on its hands.
The Wildcats went 12 deep on Wednesday (walk-ons Kory Jones and Matt Weyand got a couple of late minutes of action) and pretty much all the rotation guys looked solid.
Freshmen Nico Mannion and Josh Green combined for 19 points and just one turnover, while senior Dylan Smith hit a couple of early threes to finish with 10 points and backup guards Jemarl Baker Jr. and Max Hazzard finished with nine and seven points, respectively.
Hazzard added five assists as well.
Stone Gettings also had a good game off the bench, finishing with 13 points and even after just one game it’s obvious that this Arizona team is much deeper than last year.
Improved 3-point defense
After last week’s exhibition, Miller made it clear that he wasn’t happy with his team’s perimeter defense (the Wildcats allowed 10 threes on 25 attempts against Chico) and the head coach spoke at length at his weekly presser about how his team would need to be much improved in that area once the regular season started.
It seems as if his squad heeded his words against NAU, as they limited the Lumberjacks to just 33% (6 of 18) from three.
That type of defensive performance (and not the one they put in against Chico) will be the type that the Cats will need going forward against tougher opposition.
Yes, it was only the season opener and yes, it was against NAU, but still, the McKale crowd felt definitively lackluster compared to normal.
The announced attendance was 12,960 (well below a capacity crowd) and the Zona Zoo was nowhere near full and was somewhat disappointing as well.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering the program is coming off one of its worst seasons in damn near 30 years, but here’s to hoping the crowd picks up as the season goes on.
I’m betting it will.
I’m nit picking here, mostly because it’s hard to find many negatives from a 39-point win, but Lee failed to build on his big night last week against Chico State.
After posting a double-double of 10 points and 14 rebounds in the exhibition (which would have been his career high in boards), Lee put up just two points (both from the foul line) and four rebounds in 19 minutes of action against NAU.
Obviously, he didn’t need to do any more than that, but with Nnaji’s big night in his debut as the Wildcats’ starting power forward, it’s clear that Lee’s role will once again be that of a bench player this season.
The sophomore guard missed the season opener because of his continued suspension, and while he’ll certainly have a role when he comes back, he may have fallen down in the backcourt pecking order after what was a solid night for both Baker and Hazzard.