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Arizona basketball notebook: On the deep frontcourt, Mannion’s backups, and pushing the pace

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

While Zeke Nnaji’s debut with the Arizona Wildcats grabbed the headlines—and rightfully soStone Gettings quietly made an impressive entrance of his own.

The Cornell transfer sank a trio of 3s, which accounted for nine of his 13 points, the second-most on the team.

“You can see he gives us a different dimension,” said coach Sean Miller. “What you like about Stone is he’s different than the rest of our big guys, and he’s highly skilled, and our team did a really good job tonight of finding him in transition. A lot of his 3-point shots came off of our transition game, which is always a good sign because it’s hard to find four people on the perimeter. He becomes the fourth and he looked very good on offense. And the thing that I love about Stone is that he brings it every day. He works incredibly hard, after practice, before practice. And unlike some of our guys, he’s older. So he also gives us that experience of being a fifth-year senior.”

Arizona had a big man who could shoot last season in Ryan Luther, but he was inconsistent and struggled with his confidence, often causing him to pass up open shots. He was “being selfish by being unselfish,” as Miller used to say.

Gettings showed no hesitation when firing from deep, flashing a quick, efficient shooting stroke.

“I mean, I shot the ball pretty well at Cornell,” said Gettings, who made 37 percent of his 3 as a junior. “And I’ve been in the gym quite a bit. I mean, it’s been a year and a half since I played a game and the 3-point shot has definitely been a point of emphasis.”

Gettings, along with Nnaji and freshman Christian Koloko, have bolstered a UA frontcourt that was hurting for bodies last season. Chase Jeter was the only true center while Luther and Ira Lee had flaws in their games and weren’t ready for big minutes. Emmanuel Akot offered some intriguing potential as a small-ball 4, but never produced as hoped and transferred midway through the season.

This new, revamped frontcourt is not only deep but features various skill sets. Gettings can shoot and pass. Jeter can score in the paint. Lee makes energy plays. Koloko rebounds and blocks shots. Nnaji does everything.

“All of our bigs, they can be themselves,” Miller said. “Somebody like Chase doesn’t have to do it day in, day out. A year ago, many times he would have been our only big, our only low-post scorer. Ira emerged as the year went on, but just having the luxury of Stone, Zeke, and then those two guys returning a year older, better prepared and having gone through more game experience. Then I think you mix Christian in, we have the luxury at this moment of having depth inside. But we just have to keep developing them and those guys have to keep working, but I think we have a frontcourt that against a lot of different styles can be successful, not just one style.”

Koloko has been a pleasant surprise to this point, looking much more capable than the project he was deemed to be out of high school.

“I was excited about Christian Koloko,” Miller said after the NAU game. “He led our team in rebounding tonight and he played 12 minutes. Not a lot of 7-footers can run the court, catch it like he did, reverse pivot, shoot the shot like he did—a backwards shot around the rim. He’s agile, he’s quick and his time will come, certainly, but I was excited about watching what he did. And when we played him in the first half against Chico State, he did a nice job.”

Arizona pushed pace, fared (mostly) well with Mannion off the court

I was curious to see how Arizona would fare with and without Nico Mannion on the court, so I tracked his usage.

Here’s what the time and score was each time he checked in and out of the game. (I bolded Mannion’s plus-minus.)

  • Game starts 0-0
  • Mannion subs out with 15:57 up 6-4
  • Mannion subs in with 12:36 up 8-7
  • Mannion subs out with 5:41 up 27-16
  • Mannion subs in with 3:47 left up 33-20
  • Mannion subs out with 14:09 left in second half up 55-27
  • Mannion subs in with 7:28 left up 72-38
  • Mannion subs out with 4:45 left up 83-43
  • Game ends 91-52

Arizona scored 58 points in the 25 minutes Mannion played and 33 points in the 15 minutes he did not play. So, aside from that three-minute stretch early in the first half, the Wildcats held down the fort pretty well without Mannion, who had nine points, four assists and one turnover.

Jemarl Baker Jr. and Max Hazzard combined for eight assists and one turnover. Mannion, Baker and Josh Green were particularly keen on pushing the ball in transition. Arizona averaged 13.7 seconds per possession, the 18th-quickest pace in the country. (It helps when the team you are playing shoots 32 percent and commits 19 turnovers.)

“We have great guards that are really quick and they can push the ball really fast,” Gettings said. “And when you do that, you put a lot of pressure on their defense and it just opens up a ton. It’s really tough to guard everything when you got a guy like Zeke running the lane and putting pressure on him down there. And then you have good shooters on the outside.”

Arizona shot 9 for 23 from 3, with six players making at least one. That only happened twice all of last season, when the Wildcats shot 33.6 percent from 3, their lowest percentage in the Miller era.

Meanwhile, Arizona held NAU to 6-of-18 shooting from the 3-point line, a notable improvement after Chico State shot 40 percent.

“We made a big emphasis on defending the 3-point shot,” Miller said. “It’s something we did not do well against Chico State. When you watch 10 of them go in like it happened to us, I think it got everybody’s attention. And tonight, even the six that they made, I’d say two of them were just really late in the clock, challenged, tough, desperation shots that happened to go in. But we were much more ready, responsible, and did a better job overall.”