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What to watch for when Arizona faces St. John’s in San Francisco on Saturday

The non-conference finale is here!

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Arizona Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Arizona Wildcats (10-2) can escape for the holidays for a few days, they will take on the St. John’s Red Storm (10-2) on Saturday at the Chase Center in San Francisco.

It is Arizona’s last game until its Pac-12 opener on Jan. 4 against Arizona State. Saturday’s tip-off is set for 8 p.m. MST on ESPN2.

I outlined five things to know about St. John’s earlier, so here’s a more Arizona-oriented list of things to watch for in the non-conference finale.

Finding the bottom of the net

80th in adjusted defensive efficiency, St. John’s is the fourth-best defensive team Arizona has played this season behind Baylor, Gonzaga, and Illinois (in that order).

The Wildcats struggled mightily against two of those teams, shooting 27 percent in the loss at Baylor and 38 percent in the home loss to Gonzaga last Saturday.

Did Arizona, which has a top-15 offense statistically, get exposed by some quality defenses, or were those just off nights?

“I don’t think it really has much to do with the defense that we’re playing against,” said guard Jemarl Baker Jr. “I mean, it happens to everybody. Even NBA teams go through slumps.”

Maybe so, but the Wildcats will need to get back on track if they want to avoid a scare against a St. John’s team that has already beaten a good West Virginia squad this year.

“We didn’t make enough shots (against Gonzaga) and a lot like at Baylor, playing quick, you gotta be smart as well,” said coach Sean Miller. “Taking a couple of ill-advised, quick shots, my-turn type of shots, balls not being taken into the paint, posted, patient, all the words that you can come up with. When you play against a really good team, they use that against you and Gonzaga did. So it’s another opportunity for us to grow from that.”

Nico heating back up

If you believe in the law of averages, then better days are ahead for Nico Mannion. The freshman phenom is currently enduring a four-game stretch in which he’s shot 26 percent from the field and 21 percent from 3, far below his season averages of 43 and 36 percent, respectively.

That dip in efficiency has coincided with the back injury he suffered in Anaheim, though Miller has downplayed the effect of that, saying Mannion’s struggles are just the product of a few bad games, not a sore back or lack of confidence.

“But somebody of his stature who doesn’t shoot the ball (well), we’ve taken a look,” Miller said. “There were a couple (shots) maybe (against Gonzaga) that he could have been a little bit more patient but there were quite a few shots in that game that he normally makes and that’s part of it. But it’s a team game. You win as a team, you lose as a team. There are many, many possessions that had nothing to do with Nico shooting that we just took first-side shots, quick shots. And you play at a fast pace, it all depends on your opponent. You’ve gotta be very smart. And just because we’re playing fast, which we want to do, doesn’t mean that we need to be rushed into taking a shot. That’s not good for our team.”

What is good for their team is Mannion’s distributing numbers. He has tallied 33 assists to 10 turnovers, staying productive amid his shooting slump.

“You judge guards by that right there,” Miller said. “If they can have an assist-to-turnover ratio of three assists to one turnover, they’re really, really a good player. There’s very few that have ever done that, even at a program like ours.”

Staying composed with the ball

Arizona’s offensive discipline will be tested by St. John’s, which is known for using its press to force quick shots and turnovers, which plagued Arizona in its losses to Baylor and Gonzaga.

The Red Storm are No. 18 in the country in adjusted tempo, 14th in steal percentage, and ninth in block percentage. They forced 22 turnovers in their win over West Virginia.

“Yeah, they’re the fastest tempo team that we’ve played all season,” Miller said. “Some of that is just because of the way they play defense. They do press. They’re selective with their traps. It’s not reckless. Sometimes they don’t trap at all. Sometimes they soft press and drop into a matchup zone. Sometimes they’re super aggressive and they trap and they really try to create turnovers. But St. John’s is an excellent team in transition. Force a high amount of turnovers, played at a very fast tempo, an excellent driving team. And we have to be ready. I mean, they’re 10-2, and I’m sure this is a very big game for them as well.”

Keeping St. John’s off the offensive glass

Miller reiterated Friday that rebounding is Arizona’s Achilles heel, then took that criticism a step further, perhaps trying to motivate his players before they take on a Red Storm team that ranks 20th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.

“This is one of the worst rebounding teams that I have had at Arizona,” Miller said, whose squad ranks 162nd in defensive rebounding percentage. “This is Team 11 and if you just pull the stat sheet up, we have to get better in that area. I believe we can get better. We have enough talent to improve in that area but we have to do it. And it’s not just one person. It’s our guards. They can rebound a lot better than they have. It’s our big guys. I think Zeke (Nnaji) is really the one right now that’s moving in the right direction. If you look at his recent rebounding versus maybe the five previous games, that’s more what we need from him and he’s capable of doing that.

“Our guys that don’t start the game who are reserves our bench, we need more production from them rebounding. But the more we improve in that area, the tougher team we’re going to be, and St. John’s will test us in that area as well.”

In case you missed it...

Arizona forward Stone Gettings will miss his fifth straight game Saturday as he continues to recover from the concussion and facial fracture he suffered on Nov. 29 against Penn.

The senior is free of concussion symptoms and returned to practice this week (though was limited to non-contact activities) and should be ready to return for the Pac-12 opener.

A more detailed update can be found here.