Arizona improves to 13-5 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12 heading into Saturday’s road game at ASU.
The recipe for success was on display
Arizona was the best version of itself Saturday, playing cohesively on both ends of the court. Four stats told the story: Seven Wildcats scored six or more points, five had three or more rebounds, five sank at least one 3-pointer, and altogether they held CU to 37 percent shooting.
Another interesting stat: No UA player scored more than 13 points, with Dylan Smith and Josh Green each reaching that total. Nico Mannion and Zeke Nnaji had 12 apiece.
The Wildcats pushed the pace, turning 12 turnovers into 16 points, and moved the ball with purpose, finishing with 13 assists, 11 turnovers, 18 fast-break points and a 48 percent field-goal percentage.
“We showed up in both games (this weekend),” Miller said. “Whether we were going to win or lose against Utah and Colorado, we had the fight in us. We had a cohesive, spirited effort. If we weren’t perfect, that’s fine. We weren’t going to go away. We were going to sustain that effort level through the 80 minutes that we played. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of, is that we did really play the game with great effort.”
And if Arizona can keep it up?
“Then good things will happen in March for us,” said Ira Lee, who had six points and seven boards. “So we’re gonna focus on that, take it day by day and just keep working.”
Ira Lee got an opportunity and ran with it
Lee had his best game of the season, his energy contagious. He threw down a pair of thunderous dunks (and wasn’t whistled for a technical foul this time) and used his length and quickness to challenge several shots at the rim.
Arizona outscored Colorado by 13 points in the season-high 26 minutes Lee was on the court. UA fans admired his effort so much they twice started an “Ira Lee, Ira Lee” chant.
“Love it, man,” Lee said. “I’ve been here for three years, I’ve worked hard, worked hard with my teammates, coaches always believed in me, so it’s just beautiful to hear that. It’s beautiful to hear that with a win too.”
Together, he and Nnaji outrebounded Colorado’s Tyler Bey and Evan Battey—two of the top rebounders in the conference—19-5.
Nnaji had seven offensive rebounds alone, continuing to play with a relentless motor. Lee had three. As team, the Wildcats outrebounded the Buffaloes 39-25, despite Colorado entering as arguably the top rebounding team in the Pac-12.
“I’ve been harping on that,” Miller said. “That’s been an Achilles heel of ours, and it’s great to see us start to get that right.”
Hazzard and Smith were/are the X-factors
Max Hazzard torched the nets again, going 3 for 6 from the 3-point line. The senior is now 9 for 16 from distance in his last two games after shooting 3 for 12 from 3 in his previous four.
He, again, showed no hesitation firing away in transition, hoisting deep shots that would be bad shots for other players but are good looks for him.
“When you see that guy shoot every day, he can really, really get going,” Miller said. “He’s got a quick release. He’s a little guy as well. So sometimes a little further away from the line, you see how quick his release his, that’s what he has to do to get get a quality look off. I put him in a category of, if he takes an open 3, regardless of where and when, I think it’s a good shot for our team.”
Dylan Smith also hit three of his seven 3-point attempts, finishing with 13 points, four rebounds, and, what has become a new trend for him, three assists.
Smith had 13 assists in the first 16 games, but now has nine in the past two games. It’s probably not a coincidence that Arizona was prolific in both games.
“Dylan’s role, and who he is, and then his age, his experience, when he doesn’t play well and really has that off night, I think it affects our team,” Miller said. “When he’s solid, from a chemistry perspective and just kind of how the game feels, I think we all feel better. Dylan is one of those guys, he’ll keep trying, he fights. He didn’t play well at Oregon State, a lot of guys didn’t, but it’s good to see him bounce back. He’s a senior, he’s been here for years.”
Mannion proved Jimmy Dykes wrong
When Arizona played Baylor in December, color commentator Jimmy Dykes roasted Mannion for his absence on the glass.
There was some truth to it. Entering Saturday, Mannion was averaging just 2.1 rebounds per game, never tracking down more than four in a game, usually grabbing only one or two.
But he had a career-high seven against Colorado, a big reason the Wildcats were able to outboard the Buffs.
“He’s learning,” Miller said. “There’s so many expectations on him that you forget he’s only 19. He’s figuring things out as a college basketball player, but when he rebounds like that, it takes a lot of pressure off of our big guys.”
Mannion knew it was needed from him.
“That’s been a really big focus for us in practice and shootarounds, walkthroughs, whatever we’re doing,” he said. “And we knew coming into this game Colorado’s a really good offensive and defensive rebounding team, so I kind of had it in my head a little more and got a couple of bounces, I’d say.”
“Glad he’s figuring it out,” he tweeted.
Jeter shouldn’t start when he comes back
Who knows when Chase Jeter will return from his back injury—Miller did not have an update Saturday—but with the way Arizona fared this weekend it’s hard to justify reinserting him into the starting lineup.
Stone Gettings didn’t even play that well against Utah or Colorado—Miller thought he was a little tight because of his desire to show out as a starter—but his ability to stretch the defense made life easier for those around him, evidenced by the gaudy offensive numbers this weekend.
One play was a good example: Colorado switched to a zone press and Hazzard found Gettings for an open 3 in the corner, which he promptly buried.
And if you don’t think Gettings is the one who should start, then Lee has earned a crack at it.
“I think we know our team better now in mid-January than maybe we would have before Christmas,” Miller said. “You learn the personality and you kind of see who can do what.
“So much of the game you have to go with a hot hand. That would be Max the other night. You’ve got to go with guys that are playing well, Dylan Smith. And to your point, Ira deserved more of an opportunity because of how well he was playing. Ira, in an old-fashioned way, is earning a bigger role because how he performed.”
James Akinjo helped Arizona slow down McKinley Wright IV
Arizona faced two tough point guards this weekend in Rylan Jones and McKinley Wright IV. Both put up numbers that were right around their season averages, which was a win for the Wildcats.
One reason they didn’t perform better? Georgetown transfer James Akinjo, who just joined the team at the start of the semester, was running the scout team this week. Quite the luxury to get to practice against the Big East Freshman of the Year.
“We’ve got a heck of a scout team,” Miller said. “He’s out there and you’ve got Jordan Brown out there, it helps us. .... James is very, very quick. All of our guards get an opportunity to play against him. He’s like fresh, too, he just showed up here, practice is everything to him. I though he helped our team even for this weekend in the small doses that he practiced. He represented the other team.
“We’re implementing him, and I think this coming week he’ll practice even more, which is a good thing for our team.”
Josh Green deserves credit for this play
If you want to see a moment that exemplified Arizona’s effort in this one, check out this hustle play by Green.
After a UA turnover, he showed impressive speed by chasing down Wright to challenge what could have been a breakaway layup. Instead, Green forced a miss and it quickly led to a triple for Smith the other way—a five-point swing that gave Arizona a double-digit lead.
Here's Josh Green with that terrific hustle play. Huge sequence for Arizona. pic.twitter.com/hTPVCvlxp8— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 18, 2020
Arizona now has to replicate this on the road
With a road game at ASU looming, the question now becomes whether or not the Wildcats can replicate this kind of effort away from McKale. They haven’t so far. What we saw in Oregon last weekend, particularly in Corvallis, was the polar opposite. Arizona gave in once the going got tough.
But Mannion said Arizona was “super focused” this week, crediting it to a productive shootaround, increased scouting, and a good pregame meal.
Those things aren’t so easy to do when travel is involved.
“It’s hard two games in three days or two games and four days on the road, that stuff kind of gets to you,” Mannion said. “We have a lot of young guys and that was our first real road trip. So that may have been part of it. But I don’t think we were completely locked in as a group on that trip in the second game. But I think that’s a big thing for us, is being locked in and when we’re locked in, we play like we did today.”