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Arizona basketball: Nico Mannion’s shooting percentages have cratered since back injury

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

Nico Mannion suffered a back injury on Nov. 29 against Penn in the Wooden Legacy, and while it only briefly kept him out of that game, he has not been the same player since his return.

In four full games since that injury, Mannion is averaging 11.0 points and 8.3 assists per game. While those are still good numbers on the surface, his shooting percentages have cratered.

The freshman point guard has converted just 26 percent of his field-goal attempts and 21 percent of his 3-point attempts during that stretch. That includes going a combined 6 for 34 in the Arizona Wildcats’ losses to Baylor and Gonzaga. One could easily argue that if Mannion shoots anywhere close to his season percentages—44.3 FG%, 36.2 3PT%—Arizona would still be undefeated.

Before the back injury, Mannion was shooting 51 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3. Yes, Arizona had a soft schedule, but he did go 9 for 15 (with nine assists) in a win over a pretty solid Illinois team on Nov. 11, showing that he is capable of getting it done against stingier defenses.

It makes sense why Mannion would struggle against Baylor. His back injury, which was initially described as lower back soreness but turned out to be back spasms, prevented him from practicing leading up to that game. And since it was an early game, the Wildcats did not have a morning shootaround.

On top of that, Mannion tweaked his ankle in Waco, hindering his mobility even further against a long, athletic defense.

But Arizona coach Sean Miller was not willing to use Mannion’s health to explain why he shot 3 for 20 in the 84-80 loss to Gonzaga. After all, he had practiced all week and had 13 points and 11 assists on 5-of-10 shooting just a few days earlier in a win over Nebraska-Omaha.

“He’s healthy, he definitely had an off night,” Miller said. “I know this just because I watched closely, he had a lot of shots that he’s gonna make, that he’s already made, but didn’t go down tonight. For a young guy, he shouldn’t shoulder the blame of this loss. We missed so many other plays and players, 40 minutes, that it wasn’t just him. Clearly you want him to have a good night in a game like this, and he’s going to have plenty. Tonight wasn’t necessarily his best night of shooting.”

Could a lack of confidence be the reason?

“No, I don’t really think so,” Miller said Saturday. “He believes in himself. I go on practice and he’s been shooting the ball well. He’s really practiced well this week, Monday, Tuesday, thought he played great against Omaha, did a good job on Thursday, Friday, today and you know what, sometimes it’s as much as we all want them to go in, they didn’t. But like I said, it’s very important for me to say this, this loss doesn’t fall on him and his shooting. It’s one of a number of things that we could have done better.”

As the pair of losses have proved, Arizona isn’t equipped to survive Mannion’s shooting struggles. Not against better teams. The Wildcats aren’t blessed with a bevy of shot creators who can take the pressure off him when his shots aren’t falling.

In UA’s two losses, Mannion has accounted for 15 of its 24 assists.

So whatever the reason for his shooting slump, Arizona needs to get him back on track as it approaches Pac-12 play.

“I don’t know how his back feels, so that’s one of the questions you would have to ask Nico,” said Josh Green, Mannion’s longtime teammate, after the loss to Gonzaga, “but at the end of the day he’s been putting in work and it’s just one of those days.”