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What to watch for in Arizona basketball’s season opener vs. Grambling State

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NCAA Basketball: Nebraska Omaha at Arizona Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

We made it.

It took a couple of days longer than expected for the Arizona Wildcats to hit the hardwood after a coronavirus-extended offseason, but they will finally open the 2020-21 campaign on Friday when they host Grambling State in McKale Center.

It’s anybody’s guess, including Sean Miller’s, what the Wildcats will look like against a Tigers team that went 17-15 last season and is ranked 330rd (of 353) in KenPom’s preseason rankings.

Arizona added 10 new players this offseason, only returning three from last season’s squad, none of whom were starters. Not only that, but five of the six incoming freshmen are international players, many of whom weren’t on the radar of recruiting services.

That being said, here’s what I’ll be watching for when the Wildcats tip off at 3 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.

What do these new guys bring to the table?

Since there was no Red-Blue Game this year and practices are closed off to public, this is our first glimpse at all these new players.

Among the things I’m curious to see:

  • If Dalen Terry and Bennedict Mathurin are ready to start at small forward.
  • If James Akinjo is taking—and making—smart shots.
  • If Jordan Brown looks ready to be a No. 1 or No. 2 scoring option.
  • If Tibet Görener and Tautvilas Tubelis can do anything other than shoot that can earn them a spot in the rotation this year.
  • If Azuolas Tubelis’ ability to put the ball on the floor is for real.
  • If Terrell Brown is going to be a featured scorer like he was at Seattle U or more of a complementary player.
  • Who stands out defensively. Ultimately, that’s how you’re going to stay in Miller’s rotation.
  • How having more ball-handlers affects Arizona’s pace.

How much have the returners improved?

Ira Lee recently suffered a concussion and will likely miss this game and Sunday’s vs UTEP, so we’ll have to wait to see what kind of strides he’s made since March.

Christian Koloko and Jemarl Baker Jr. are good to go, though.

To me, Koloko—who’s gained 10 pounds of muscle since last season—is the most intriguing player on the roster. As a freshman he was already an elite shot blocker and an above average rebounder. If he can become a reliable offensive threat on top of that, he could emerge as one of the best big men in the country and a legitimate NBA prospect.

And I don’t mean he needs to be Hakeem Olajuwon down there on the low block, flashing fancy footwork and making crazy hook shots. He just needs to be a strong finisher around the basket, make a decent percentage of his free throws, and maybe sink a jumper here or there.

Any low post skills would be a bonus. Still a sophomore, he has lots of time to develop those.

As for Baker, he’ll be spending more off the ball this year, and his 3-point shooting will be critical to this team, especially if Kerr Kriisa’s eligibility issues keep him out for an extended period of time.

And since Baker is one of this team’s few returners, it will be interesting to see if he plays with more confidence this season and shows more of a willingness to look for his own shot. His experience will be invaluable early in the season.

Who starts, how deep does the rotation go?

The non-conference season is usually a prime time to experiment with lineups, rotations and combinations.

Not this year.

The Wildcats only have two games to prepare for their Pac-12 opener vs. Colorado. They need to know sooner rather than later which players are ready for the big stage and which ones could use some more seasoning.

If there’s an upside to being without three scholarship players it’s that it gives Miller more opportunities to evaluate the players who are available.

He usually only plays an eight-man rotation anyway, so if I had to guess I’d say Arizona’s rotation will primarily consist of Akinjo, Baker, Koloko, Azuolas, Terry, Mathurin and both Browns.

My starting lineup prediction: Akinjo/Baker/Terry/Azuolas/Jordan Brown.

If the Wildcats need a ninth player because of foul trouble (or just need some spacing), Görener is your guy. I’d be surprised if Tautvilas Tubelis gets any important minutes this year barring injuries, eligibility issues, etc.

Kriisa will make it a nine-man rotation as a combo guard when/if he returns, and he might even be able to crack the starting five by the end of the season. Lee, as he’s been the past three seasons, will be the first or second big off the bench.

French freshman Daniel Batcho (knee injury) isn’t being re-evaluated until January, so we’ll refrain from projecting how he fits into the rotation for now.

Who’s going to make 3s?

Only once has Arizona shot under 35 percent from 3 under Miller (2018-19) but this has the potential to be one of those seasons, especially if Kriisa is out for a while.

Baker is the only returning player who took 3s last season, and he didn’t make a very high percentage of them, shooting just 34.3 percent from behind the arc. He needs to increase that number, and Arizona needs to find at least two or three more guys who are serviceable shooters.

Both Terry and Mathurin have worked hard to improve that area of their game, but how far have they come?

Akinjo shot 39 percent from 3 as a freshman at Georgetown but 24 percent as a sophomore. Which version will Arizona get?

Terrell Brown only made 30 percent of his 3s at Seattle. Maybe that number will improve since he’s no longer the featured scorer and should get easier shots at Arizona?

Azuolas Tubelis’ jumper is a work in progress and probably won’t take make 3s.

Görener and Tautvilas can shoot but need to prove they can contribute in other ways before they are rotation-worthy players.

An empty McKale Center

Arizona has led the Pac-10/12 in attendance for the last 4852098324 years* but McKale Center will be empty until at least January aside from players, coaches, event staff and a handful of media members.

I’ll be one of the lucky people in attendance Friday and I’m curious to see what the atmosphere is like.

I covered Niya Butts’ final season as the Arizona women’s basketball coach and those games drew less than 1,000 fans, so I’m assuming it will be kind of be like that, only players and coaches will be socially-distanced on the sideline and there won’t be any in-game entertainment.

The most interesting thing about covering those Butts-era games was being able to hear the coaches call out plays and bark instructions at their players—sometimes not always in the most PG way. You get an awesome look at how players communicate too, particularly on defense when guarding ball screens.

While it’s sad Arizona fans won’t be there—and that could really hurt the Wildcats, who have historically been dominant in front of their home crowd—there’s something really cool about being immersed in the game like that. It makes you appreciate the little details.

*that’s not the official number but it sure feels like it

The Masked Miller

Miller is one of the most, um, boisterous coaches in the country, so I’m sure it will be a huge adjustment for him to have to wear a mask and not be as communicative as he’d like.

Especially since this group is far from being a finished product and undoubtedly will make its fair share of mental mistakes.