The Arizona Wildcats (11-3) routed the Arizona State Sun Devils (9-5) by a score of 75-47 on Saturday to open their Pac-12 seasons. It snaps a two-game losing streak for the Wildcats, who were coming off defeats to Gonzaga and St. John’s.
Arizona did all three things it was looking to fix
This was a very satisfying win for the Wildcats, and it had little to do with the fact that they beat their in-state rival by 28 points, though that’s always nice too.
Simply: all the hours they spent in practice the last couple weeks paid off. Earlier in the week, Miller laid out three areas UA needed to improve heading into Pac-12 play—defensive rebounding, defending without fouling, and taking better shots.
They did all three.
Arizona outrebounded Arizona State 49-35, posting a defensive rebounding percentage of 80.9. its best mark all season. That is a major contrast from the losses to Baylor, Gonzaga, and St. John’s in which Arizona had a DRP of 63.9, 69.2, and 69.1, respectively. (UA’s season average is 72.7 and the nation average is 71.8.)
It wasn’t just Zeke Nnaji doing all the heavy lifting, though he did lead the way with 11 boards. Chase Jeter grabbed nine (tying a season high), Josh Green had seven, and Christian Koloko had six.
“They were just being more physical than us,” said ASU center Romello White. “Pushing us, getting the rebound, just really playing harder than us.”
As far as shot selection, the Wildcats fed Nnaji just as they wanted to. The freshman had 17 points on a team-high 11 shots. It was just the third time all season that he has been UA’s leading shot-taker, the last coming against Long Beach State, the sixth game of the season.
Nnaji made seven field goals and three of his four free throws.
“It’s a big emphasis,” Miller said. “The statistics don’t lie. He’s played 13 games, we’ve played against really good teams and Zeke produces. The other thing about him is, he doesn’t shoot it every time he catches it. Some of the best opportunities that we had started just with him catching the ball. Our team is just more aware of doing it and we’re better at it.”
Echoed Green: “I mean, when you have someone like Zeke at the 4-man, there’s not that many people his size, height, or strength-wise, so a big factor for us guards is getting him the ball inside. It creates for our whole offense. If we get it inside, obviously he’s gonna bully his player down. If they double, it brings it out for the perimeter players. So, it was little things we have to tune like that just to help us continue to improve as a team into these bigger games into Pac-12. Because most coaches kind of know how we play, the plays we run, so it’s just about adjusting to it and doing what works for us.”
And while Arizona had a poor night from the 3-point line, it limited itself to 15 attempts, instead outscoring the Sun Devils 50-18 in the paint.
The Wildcats played fast, showing a willingness to play ASU’s uptempo style, but smart for the most part. Green was a good example. Miller subtly called him out earlier in the week when he said guys who are shooting 32 percent from an area should not be shooting from there.
Well, Green not so coincidentally was shooting 32 percent from 3. Saturday, he hoisted just one three-ball, and wound up finishing with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, doing most of his damage in transition with Nico Mannion.
It wasn’t Green’s highest-scoring game, but he was in control throughout.
“I think the biggest factor was we wanted to push it, but we want to take a good shot at the same time,” Green said. “If it’s not the right look, we were able to bring it out, get into a set, go into motion offense, and I think our team did a good job of that.”
Arizona held ASU to 31 percent shooting and, better yet, only 19 free throw attempts compared to 59 field goal attempts. ASU’s .322 free-throw rate was easily the lowest a major-conference team (and Gonzaga) has had against Arizona this season, and more than five percent below UA’s season average.
Miller said Arizona still fouled a little bit too much for his liking, citing the time Dylan Smith was whistled for a reach-in foul late in the shot clock, but overall he was pleased with the way his team responded from the loss to St. John’s.
They did what he asked of them.
“You have to keep in mind, there’s seven guys who played in tonight’s game that weren’t even here a year ago,” he said. “So some of the things that we’ve gone through in the last couple of months, it makes sense. I probably have done a better job over the break of clarifying roles, something I wished I might have been able to do a little bit earlier. Guys know what to do what’s expected and I think they’re trying to become a better team.”
The plan is to play Christian Koloko every game
The freshman 7-footer was arguably Arizona’s most productive player, posting eight points, six rebounds and a block in just 11 minutes. And those numbers hardly capture the impact he made defensively, using his long arms and strides to cause havoc in the paint and on the perimeter.
“Christian just keeps getting better,” Miller said. “You just don’t realize how long, tall (he is). He switched a couple of their pick-and-rolls. Man, there’s not a lot of 7-footers that can switch on to a guard and not fall down, let alone be adept to challenging the shot and stopping and turning. He’s very well-coordinated. The best is yet to come regardless of what he does now. I think his future’s incredibly bright. He helped us tonight, made some really big plays when he was in. Like Stone (Gettings), Christian gives you a little bit of a different look in that he’s a shot blocker. Our other guys aren’t really shot blockers.”
Miller said he plans to use Koloko every game moving forward, though admitted his minutes could fluctuate. Koloko has appeared in six straight games, playing anywhere from one to 13 minutes.
“But we want to make him a part of every game so he gets comfortable,” Miller said. “In the St. John’s game and in this game he really helped us.”
Nico Mannion is having trouble avoiding injuries
Mannion has seemingly been injured for most of the season. First, it was the back spasms he suffered in Anaheim in late November. Then it was his ankle that he tweaked in Baylor in early December.
Now it’s Mannion’s knee. He appeared to bang knees with ASU’s Rob Edwards as he tried to wall off a drive with just under five minutes left in the first half.
The UA point guard was grimacing as he hobbled to the sideline, and eventually he went to the locker room for a bit before returning to the bench for the rest of the period.
Here’s the play Nico Mannion got injured on. Appeared to bump knees with ASU’s Rob Edwards. pic.twitter.com/BY9DtBC2dg— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 5, 2020
Mannion returned in the second half and played 15 minutes. Miller said he is fine, but it would be nice if he can avoid these kinds of scares altogether.
As far as his play, Mannion struggled again from the field (3 for 9), missing some layups that Miller said he will usually make. He had seven assists, but also four turnovers that were mostly the product of him overzealously trying to push the ball in transition.
Mannion actually scored eight of his 10 points and had five of his seven assists after he collided with Edwards.
“I thought he played the right way and did a really good job for our team as well,” Miller said.
Both teams could benefit from some extra reps at the free throw line
Arizona State boasts that it is No. 1 in innovation, and for a while there it looked like it was trying to become the first Pac-12 team to miss all of its free throws in a game.
The Sun Devils missed their first six attempts, eventually finishing 5 for 15 at the stripe. It got so laughably bad that one of those bricks was scooped up by Green and taken the other way for an uncontested dunk.
But Arizona probably shouldn’t be laughing because it only went 11 for 22 from the line. Koloko and Ira Lee combined to go 0 for 6.