The Arizona Wildcats certainly are no strangers to adversity and they are already facing a great deal of it as the college basketball season tips off Wednesday.
Notice I didn’t say “their season” tips off Wednesday. The Wildcats saw their opener vs. NAU get canceled due to a COVID-19 case within the Lumberjacks program.
No matter when Arizona debuts, it will be without three scholarship players.
The school announced Monday that freshman guard Kerr Kriisa is temporarily leaving to play for the Estonian national team as he awaits clearance from the NCAA to play for the Wildcats. He is scheduled return to Tucson next week but is currently ineligible for an undisclosed reason.
The Wildcats are already missing freshman center Daniel Batcho and senior forward Ira Lee indefinitely. Batcho will be out until at least February with a cartilage-related knee injury. It’s possible he misses the entire season.
Lee’s status is not as clear. Concussions can be a tricky thing to return from. Stone Gettings missed an entire month last season and we’ve seen Arizona volleyball players sit out several months.
Sean Miller said Arizona plans to take it slow with Lee, who hadn’t been practicing as of last Friday, so it’s doubtful he plays this weekend against Grambling State and UTEP. A UA spokesman had no update on Lee when I asked about his status Monday.
It leaves Arizona’s frontcourt pretty thin, with Christian Koloko, Jordan Brown and Azuolas Tubelis as the main bodies. While they all have interesting and complementary skillsets, none of them have ever started at the collegiate level.
They should be a solid rebounding unit and Koloko gives them a big-time shot blocker, but scoring is a question mark, though Brown—a McDonald’s All-American—and Tubelis, the best European player to go to college in the United States, have plenty of potential.
Arizona also has freshmen Tautvilas Tubelis and Tibet Görener up there, but neither was expected to have a big role this season. Maybe that will change now.
In the backcourt, Kriisa’s absence rids Arizona of a shooter and playmaker. The Wildcats have guards like James Akinjo, Terrell Brown and Dalen Terry to pick up the ball-handling duties, but they will miss Kriisa’s shooting.
Arizona doesn’t have one proven marksman on its roster. Jemarl Baker Jr. is usually deemed to be the team’s best shooter, but he has never made more than 35 percent of his 3s in a season.
Görener and Tautvilas Tubelis are known for their strokes too, but the other parts of their games might not be college-ready yet.
Brown was a career 30 percent 3-point shooter at Seattle.
Akinjo made 39 percent of his 3 as a freshman at Georgetown, but only 24 percent of his triples as a sophomore (albeit in a seven-game sample size) so you don’t really know what you have there.
Arizona was inconsistent enough from behind the arc last season, a huge reason they failed to live up to lofty expectations.
Even when at full strength, this Arizona team isn’t projected to be great this season, being picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, which even Miller thought was too high given the new 10 players and the challenges of integrating them without a normal preseason.
Throw in a pair of injuries and some eligibility issues and it really is anyone’s guess how this team will fare.
But, for the sake of making predictions, here’s at least what the rotation might look like right now:
- PG: James Akinjo/Terrell Brown/Dalen Terry
- SG: Jemarl Baker Jr./Terrell Brown
- SF: Dalen Terry/Bennedict Mathurin/Tautvilas Tubelis
- PF: Azuolas Tubelis/Tibet Görener
- C: Jordan Brown/Christian Koloko