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Rebounding is Arizona’s ‘Achilles heel’ heading into Gonzaga game

Wooden Legacy Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Normally after Arizona basketball games, I compile a list of a few things we learned from the day’s action. But there is really only one thing to take away from Wednesday’s win over Nebraska-Omaha: the Wildcats need to rebound better.

Despite winning by 50, Arizona owned a 47-33 rebounding margin. That doesn’t seem that bad until you dig a little deeper and see they were outrebounded 14-12 on the offensive glass, which resulted in 11 second-chance points for the Mavericks.

It’s not an anomaly.

The Wildcats rank 113th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 155th in defensive rebounding percentage. Both marks are around the nation’s average, even though Arizona has had a pretty weak schedule so far.

Baylor, the best team Arizona has played, outrebounded UA 40-33 last Saturday including 13 offensive rebounds, which they turned into 12 second-chance points.

Considering it was a one-possession affair in the final minute, the rebounding margin could be seen as the difference in the game. And maybe how Arizona’s season ends in March.

“Our Achilles heel is rebounding,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after the Omaha game. “We’re not good enough defensive rebounding. We’re not a team that gets a lot of second shots. We’ve been at this for a while, but we have to block out. That’s up to us as a coaching staff.”

It’s scary to think what No. 6 Gonzaga, the 37th-best offensive and fifth-best defensive rebounding team in the country, can do Saturday in McKale Center. The Zags already have the No. 6 offense, so they certainly don’t need any help on that end.

“They can really win the game and break your back when they can get those big second shots,” Miller said. “Because when you get a second shot, it’s going to either be a high percentage 3 or 2. A lot of times you’re going to get fouled. And then the team who gets the most good shots wins. That’s a big advantage. So how many second shots teams get against us, I hope we can point towards less and less and less, but there’s no bigger key for our team on Saturday than to keep those guys off the offensive glass. I don’t think they get enough credit in that area. They can beat you up and they have two bigs in the game. They have wings who run in from the 3-point line and everybody on our team has to know that for us to have a chance, regardless of where we’re playing this game, we have to rebound the ball.”

In that case, Christian Koloko could be the key to topping the Zags. As Stone Gettings sits with a concussion (he is unlikely to play Saturday), Koloko has emerged in the rotation because of his ability to impact the interior. His best quality is his shot-blocking, but he’s no slouch on the boards either.

Koloko’s 15.9 offensive rebounding percentage is easily the highest on the team and his 18.9 defensive rebounding percentage only trails Ira Lee (24.6) and Chase Jeter (20.2), though it probably won’t be long before he surpasses one, or both, of them.

The 7-foot freshman grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds in just 13 minutes against Nebraska-Omaha, a strong follow up after a productive game at Baylor.

“He’s somebody that we really notice,” Miller said. “He had four second shots, two of those he got fouled on, which is my point. But Christian is getting better, he’s improving. We’ve seen it before Baylor, and it’s nice that we can sprinkle him in. I think the role that he’s in right now is a big one... And it’s nice to see him doing well, it really is. He’s worked very, very hard since he came on our campus in June.”

The Wildcats can also get more out of fellow freshman Zeke Nnaji, whose offensive rebounding rate has dipped along with his scoring numbers in recent games.

Nnaji has two offensive rebounds in his last two games and four in his last three.

“We want him to continue to be aggressive,” Miller said. “The one thing that he was doing a great job of early on was he was just like a lion going after the ball on the offensive glass. He hasn’t done that as well and sometimes when you get post trapped or you have a turnover on the first play... it can steal your mind as a young player. And I think one of the things we’re on him about is to stay aggressive, to slow down, to not panic when he gets post trapped because he’s a very good passer and I think he’s going to be fine. I really believe that.”

ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes aggressively criticized Nico Mannion during the Baylor game for his inactivity on the glass and, in some ways, he is right.

Yes, Mannion often leaks out to ignite Arizona’s transition game, often leaving him far away from the basket, but he is still only grabbing two rebounds per game, despite playing roughly 30 minutes per game.

For reference, former UA point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who is 5-foot-8 (at best) and not nearly as athletic as the 6-foot-3 Mannion, twice averaged 2.4 rebounds per game.

“Everybody who plays basketball can block out,” Miller said. “Our guards have to rebound better, but so do our bigs. Our starters as a group have to do a better job, so does our bench. It doesn’t fall blame on anybody. It’s the weakness of our team.”