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What we learned from Arizona basketball’s season opener vs. Grambling State

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Jordan Brown
Photo courtesy University of Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats beat Grambling State 74-55 in their season opener on Friday. Our full recap can be found here, Sean Miller’s postgame comments can be read/watched here, and below are some additional takeaways from the win.

Jordan Brown and James Akinjo are 1A and 1B—and also roommates

Much like the way Zeke Nnaji and Nico Mannion made a strong impression early last season, Jordan Brown and James Akinjo appear next in line as Arizona’s next high-scoring duo.

On Friday, Brown became just the fifth player of the Miller era to record a double-double in his debut, joining the likes of Ryan Anderson, Deandre Ayton, Chase Jeter and Aaron Gordon.

The Nevada transfer had 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting to go along with 15 rebounds in 32 minutes. Brown made his first five shots in a variety of ways—scoring with a spin on the low block, a jump hook, a mid-range jumper, and by rim-running in transition. He capped his day by shimmying a defender on the block and dropping in another right-handed hook.

He looked every bit like the McDonald’s All-American he was coming out of high school and the player who’s twice won the gold jersey in practice this season.

“I commend Jordan because he’s one of our team’s hardest workers,” Miller said. “He’s worked very, very hard over the last year and a half and it really showed today. I thought he was our team’s overall best player.”

Brown was amped to be back on the court after sitting out last season, challenging shots like crazy at the rim and soaring for dunks and rebounds. He said he counted exactly how many days it had been since his last game.

“614,” he said.

Brown is a different player than he was almost two calendar years ago. He said he felt much stronger on the court, helping him establish favorable post position. He’s added 30 pounds of muscle since his last game at Nevada, where he was a bench player.

“It’s definitely a big difference,” Brown said. “I put on a lot of good weight, working out so I can be in shape and be healthy.”

One game in, Akinjo already deems Brown to be “one of the best bigs in the Pac-12.” The two are roommates and complement each other well, both finishing with 19 points.

“He makes it real easy for me to play,” Akinjo said. “He draws the defense in with his low post scoring, so I get a lot of open shots. And the way he be jumping on ball screens and hedging and allowing those guards to be back in front of our man is really great.”

Akinjo shot 6 for 14 from the field and 4 for 9 from 3. He called his performance “subpar”, but Miller thought his 3-point shooting was proof of a productive offseason.

“Obviously it was my first game so I’m super excited to play, we all are, you just gotta calm down and make those shots,” Akinjo said.

Akinjo also played with the toughness Miller has been lauding since he transferred in from Georgetown. In one instance, Akinjo stripped a Grambling State guard near midcourt and slammed into the stanchion as he finished an and-one layup on the other end.

Later, Akinjo sank two of the timeliest buckets of the game, draining a pair of 3-pointers both times the Tigers cut the lead to 11 near the midpoint of the second half.

“James has an inner confidence that our team needs,” Miller said.

Pair him with a post like Brown and the Wildcats appear to have one of the best 1-2 punches in the Pac-12.

“That’s my roommate,” Akinjo said. “We connect at all levels, so playing with him is just amazing.”

It’s an 8-man rotation until Kerr Kriisa and Ira Lee return

Tibet Görener and Tautvilas Tubelis didn’t see any action, which is a pretty good indication of where they stand right now. Arizona led by double digits for the entire second half and could have given them some minutes without jeopardizing the win.

However, their next game is the Pac-12 opener vs. Colorado (for now, anyway), so Miller can’t experiment the way he normally would during the non-conference season. Instead, he rolled with an eight-man rotation of Akinjo, Brown, Christian Koloko, Jemarl Baker Jr., Terrell Brown, Dalen Terry, Azuolas Tubelis, and Bennedict Mathurin.

It will probably expand to 10 players when Ira Lee (concussion) and Kerr Kriisa (eligibility issues) come back. Miller said Lee is symptom-free and should return soon. Kriisa’s status is unclear since it’s in the NCAA’s hands. He’s back in Estonia this weekend playing for the national team.

Arizona misses Kerr Kriisa

Hopefully Kriisa is cleared soon because Arizona needs his shooting. The Wildcats went 7 from 25 from behind the arc, showing that those concerns about their shooting are warranted. Take Akinjo out of the picture and they shot just 3 for 16 from 3.

Arizona could use another ball-handler, too. Baker got in foul trouble and eventually fouled out, forcing Akinjo to play 38 minutes. Miller thought he wore down as the game went on, part of the reason Arizona’s offense got sloppy in the second half when they shot 32 percent and committed eight turnovers.

Some position changes are in order so that doesn’t happen again.

“We have to allow Benn Mathurin to play the 2 some so that we could have a lineup of Benn (Mathurin) playing with Dalen Terry (at the 3),” Miller said. “They could play together but it’s usually when we go small. Allowing Benn to play some 2, tonight you saw Jemarl get in foul trouble and without Kerr (Kriisa)...we almost needed another guard, but that’s the problem just with the way this is.”

Moving Mathurin to the 2 means Terrell Brown can help backup Akinjo at the point. The former 20-point-per-game scorer at Seattle had just two points Friday (via a pair of late free throws) but dished out seven assists.

“He’s a very good defensive player, he’s really almost like having a second or third point guard on the court,” Miller said. “I thought he had two or three great passes tonight. You have seven assists and two turnovers, that’s very good. He didn’t score tonight, but he’ll be fine in that area. We need him to be a great playmaker and an excellent defensive player, take some of the burden off of Jemarl, some of the burden off of James. Terrell gives us depth at the point guard position if James is out of the game. Terrell is more than capable of being our point guard. He does it almost every day, so I thought he showed some good things out there tonight and something that he can build from.”

Christian Koloko is still lacking confidence offensively

Jordan Brown and Koloko combined for 24 rebounds as Koloko reeled in nine of his own. You won’t find many frontcourts that possess the physical tools that they have.

Mentally, though, Koloko still has some work to do.

He scored seven points but on 3-of-8 shooting, badly missing two open mid-range jumpers and botching some easy looks around the basket that looked like they could have been dunked. He also continues to struggle at the charity stripe, missing two of his three free throw attempts.

“I didn’t think that he approached the game with great confidence,” Miller said. “He’s one of our team’s best defenders. He struggled tonight in that area. We need him to be better, we need him to be more confident. We need him to be more aggressive.”

Miller started Koloko because “he’s one of our team’s five best players” and “had a very good fall.” It just didn’t carry over to the game.

“You have to understand how young of a player he is, how inexperienced he is,” Miller said of the sophomore. “He’s going to continue to improve...but we need him to be better and I think he will.”

The freshmen have interesting tools, but are tertiary options right now

Akinjo and Brown look like the real deal, so now Arizona needs to figure out who its third option will be. The freshmen each did some good things to put themselves in the conversation.

Dalen Terry made a 3 and had three assists. Azuolas Tubelis moves extremely well for his size and has really soft hands and touch. He had two nifty finishes around the basket.

Like Terry, Mathurin’s length is noticeable defensively and also he made a 3, banked in a runner in transition, and earned eight shots at the free throw line, making seven to finish with 13 points, third most on the team.

But the freshmen still shot 5 for 16 from the field and committed five turnovers.

“They’re going to continue to grow and develop with every practice and every game,” Miller said. “It’s finally good that they had a chance to get out there and play and now we just have to continue to get them more experience.”

The halfcourt offense was clunky and Grambling’s press defense was disruptive

Eh, to be honest, this isn’t something we learned. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a team that has 10 new players and didn’t have any scrimmages looked out of sync in its opener.

They struggled to break GSU’s press and the halfcourt offense got very stagnant at times, often resulting in Akinjo or another guard calling for a high screen and creating something on a dime.

The fact Arizona committed 15 turnovers and only shot 38 percent tells you all you need to know. The Wildcats are probably going to have to lean on their defense early in the season.

“We obviously have a long, long way to go,” Miller said. “I think it’s obvious if you watched us. It is what it is, though.”

It was a “surreal” night in a fanless McKale Center

Game days are unrecognizable in McKale Center during the coronavirus pandemic.

The bleachers are pulled up, the curtains behind the baskets are pulled down, the bench seats are spaced out, and hundreds of cardboard cutouts of season ticket holders, former players, and even ASU coach Bobby Hurley replace the usual 14,000+ screaming fans.

The only “real” people in the stands are event staff, players’ parents, and a handful of media members.

Fake crowd noise and “U of A” chants were pumped in to try to liven things up, but it was pretty quiet and sounded more like white noise than actual people. It turned off when Arizona took free throws, making the gym fall into an eerie silence.

“It feels very, very strange,” Miller said. “You don’t know until you go through it, but being somebody who’s watched these types of events only on TV, it doesn’t feel as different for the viewer at home. But for the participants, for the players, the coaches, the officials, it’s much different. Surreal, really.”

Miller was dressed differently too, going with a blue track jacket, gray slacks and a gray gaiter for his mask. He occasionally pulled it down to yell instructions at his players.

“The mask is what it is,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t breathe when you have it. It’s terrible, but it’s what we’re all required to do and I thought I did a pretty good job of keeping that on tonight.”

Akinjo and Brown said that while the fanless atmosphere is not what you’d typically expect at a college game, it isn’t something they haven’t experienced before. It just means they have to create their own energy.

“We all played AAU, so we all grew up playing in empty gyms,” Akinjo said. “It don’t matter where we’re playing at, if there’s 14,000 (fans) or zero. ... We know we gotta come out and take care of business.”