The Arizona Wildcats held their preseason media days on Thursday and Friday (virtually, of course), our first opportunity to talk to every player on this revamped roster.
Here’s one thing we learned about each scholarship player. (Don’t worry, we’ll have something on the walk-ons at another time.)
Yeah, James Akinjo is tough
Ever since Akinjo transferred in from Georgetown, Sean Miller has lauded his toughness. Akinjo, according to Miller, is the guy who will want the ball in big moments and the challenge of defending the other team’s best players.
That intensity has been apparent to Estonian freshman Kerr Kriisa, who’s quickly learning that the college game is much different than it is overseas.
“I think everything is kind of more physical, especially playing against James,” Kriisa said. “James is on my ass every day in the practices, so I haven’t really felt that before.”
This was the first time we spoke to Akinjo since he joined the program, but he didn’t go into much detail about why he left Georgetown. He did, however, explain why he chose Arizona, saying he likes the fan support, Tucson’s proximity to his hometown, the weather, Arizona’s track record with guards and his relationship with Miller, which started when Akinjo was a high school recruit in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I remember Coach Miller contacting me a lot and everything he was telling me has been true,” Akinjo said. “We’re playing a fast pace. He’s really tough on guards, and he was a point guard, so some of the things that I’m able to do, he did, so he’s able to help me a lot more.”
Christian Koloko is making life easier for his new French-speaking teammates
Koloko, Daniel Batcho and Bennedict Mathurin all speak French. Their accents are different because they hail from different continents, and they disagree about who speaks it the best, but they don’t have many problems understanding each other.
Having a common language has eased the transition to the United States for Batcho and Mathurin, who hail from France and Quebec, respectively. Koloko, originally from Cameroon, is roommates with Mathurin and hosted him on his visit in November 2019.
It turns out there are other advantages to being multilingual, too.
“Sometimes when I’m messing up a play I might talk with Christian in French so the coach won’t understand what I’m saying,” Mathurin smiled.
Bennedict Mathurin is learning new positions
Mathurin said he played point guard at the NBA Latin America Academy but realizes he will be playing off the ball at Arizona due to the number of lead guards on the roster.
“I’m a big guard, so I’m playing with James, Kerr and Terrell (Brown),” he said. “They’re all shorter than me so...I gotta adjust myself. I gotta guard from 1 to 3, so I feel like my game is still improving even if I’m not playing the position that I used to play. But I’m still loving it so and I get to know a lot of positions. As I get bigger, I think I’m gonna be more of a 2,3 because last year I was a lot skinnier.”
Now listed at 6-foot-7, 195 pounds, Mathurin even envisions himself playing the 4 when Arizona goes small. His athleticism and slashing ability could make a tough cover.
“I might have mismatches and I feel it’s gonna be the best for the team so I’m gonna do it and do it to win,” he said.
Dalen Terry has added weight to help deal with the physicality of college basketball
The 6-7 swingman said he’s added 16 pounds since arriving at Arizona. (He’s listed at 195, but it’s unclear what he weighs now.) Like Mathurin, Terry knows he’s going to have to play small forward at times, even though he’s used to running the point.
The extra bulk should help him as a defender and finisher.
“I definitely had to figure out a different way to score at the basket,” said Terry, who’s also been working on his jumper. “It’s just because it’s college, it’s a new level. I’ll get used to it.”
Kerr Kriisa wants to make his namesake proud
Kriisa was named after Steve Kerr and isn’t afraid of the inevitable comparisons he’ll draw to the UA legend—and there are quite a few.
Like Kerr, Kriisa is a 6-foot-3 combo guard with a sweet jumper and, yes, will wear No. 25 with the Wildcats.
“He obviously is a legendary player and an even better coach now,” Kriisa said. “He was playing at times when I was really small back then, so I’ve been just like watching some videos from from back in the days, but now I’m wearing his number and I take it more like a responsibility to give this 25 in the rafters (a tribute).”
Jemarl Baker Jr. is happy to be playing off the ball again
After serving as the backup point guard last season, Baker is having fun being a two-guard again.
“I’ve been being aggressive, the coaches have been preaching that to me, to just be aggressive and look to score and I’m getting more comfortable and I’m feeling really good,” he said.
No, really. Baker said he hasn’t had any issues with knees, which prevented him from being 100 percent healthy for most of last season.
“I’ve been working hard, stretching a lot, just doing a lot of things to take care of my body, working with [Justin Kokoskie] and (Chris) Rounds as well,” Baker said. “So I’ve been feeling really good since I got to campus and over the summer.”
Jordan Brown explained why he picked Arizona this time
The former McDonald’s All-American picked Nevada over Arizona out of high school, but explained why he reversed that decision after one season with the Wolf Pack.
“Honestly, just the loyalty that I felt they had because they were in my top three coming out of high school, and they’re one of the first schools to contact me when I did enter the transfer portal,” he said. “So I took my visit up here because I was planning on taking a visit when I was back in high school. But I took my visit up here and it was a great visit. And I even tested out my other options and I just felt like it was a really great fit here.”
And after sitting out a year, he’s clearly excited about getting a chance to show what he can do after being relegated to a bench role at Nevada.
“I feel like a lot of things I’ve done in high school is something that I can bring over and do in college,” he said. “And a lot more things.”
Terrell Brown is in an unusual leadership position
A fifth-year senior, Brown is the oldest player on the roster, but he just joined the program as a graduate transfer from Seattle U. So while he’s trying to help the freshmen adjust to the college game, he’s still getting used to the new surroundings himself.
“I do see myself as a leader,” he said. “I think at first being a new dude on the team it was kind of hard being a leader, but as you continue to play, you’re more vocal. Because of the experience you’ve been through, people kind of lean on you a lot, so that’s the role I got—is being a leader but also with James Akinjo with his experience and Jemarl Baker and Ira (Lee) and Jordan Brown, they all are all leaders. Even the younger dudes are stepping up, talking and being more vocal. That’s the atmosphere that we want.”
Tibet Gorener knows he needs to bulk up—and he has a lofty target weight
We already know the Turkish forward is a lights-out 3-point shooter—maybe the best on the team—but he knows he will need to be able to contribute in other ways if he wants to see the court this year.
“I feel like I bring a good feel to the game, but just my main goal right now is just getting my weight up, getting more physical and just getting stronger,” Gorener said. “Also getting better on defense, rebounding the ball better.”
The 6-9 forward said he weighs 200 pounds now—five more than he was listed as a recruit—and hopes to be 220 or 225 one day.
“I don’t know when that will happen but that’s the goal,” he said. “I feel like I have a good chance to improve this year, physically and basketball-wise.”
(We also learned that Gorener speaks perfect English and hardly has an accent. That makes sense considering he finished high school in Southern California.)
Ira Lee is out to prove he’s improved
Entering his fourth season at Arizona, Lee is easily the most tenured player on the team. Several players noted that we, the media, “already know what he can do” on the court.
That is, play with energy, crash the glass and be good for an emphatic block or dunk every now and then. But Lee is out to prove he’s capable of more than that.
“My main focus is coming in as a leader, but with that...you have to lead by example too,” he said. “So I made sure I came back in the best shape I could be in. I worked a lot on my mid-range. That’s something I can confidently say is part of my game. I’ll probably shoot a few of those a game now.”
Daniel Batcho is a hard worker
Before the freshman center went down with what could be a season-ending knee injury, he was impressing his new teammates with his work ethic.
“He’s special,” Lee said. “He’s a kid that works really hard. He plays hard too. I think first day he missed like two left-handed layups. The next morning he shot like 100 left-handed layups. He’s that type of guy. He wants to be perfect, so he was really sad to hear he’s not playing this season. But also I know he’s going to bounce back from this because I know he’s going to work 10 times harder.”
Azuolas Tubelis is a “silent killer”
Azuolas didn’t say much in his interview. He speaks pretty fluent English (and some Russian) but was measured with his words, limiting his answers to a couple sentences at most.
That’s just how he is.
“That’s my silent killer,” Lee said. “He doesn’t say much, but he comes in every day, he does his job, he works hard and he might be one of the best left-handed players I’ve ever played with.”
Jordan Brown is impressed by Azuolas’ athleticism and the way he handles the ball for a 6-10 forward.
“Sometimes I hate guarding him because I hate guarding his left hand,” Koloko added. “He has really good touch around the rim. His mid-range jumper is pretty good, so it’s gonna be interesting to see how we all play together.”
Arizona was the first school to offer scholarships to both Tautvilas and Azuolas Tubelis
Tautvilas doesn’t have the same accolades as his twin brother and said Arizona was the first American university to offer them both a scholarship. Their fates were sealed at that point.
“We thought that together it’s better and it’s more comfortable to go to the States,” Tautvilas said. “So we came here because this university was the first one and I think it was the best one.”
Tautvilas said they tell family members that coming to Arizona was “the best decision in our life so far.” They like the program’s history and the university’s prestige. They also enjoy the hot weather and the Tucson food scene.
“The first time I tried tacos here, I liked them,” Azuolas said. “I like pancakes. They’re different than in Europe, so it tastes good.”
“In America, I’ve tried Mexican food for the first time,” Tautvilas added. “Like my brother, I tried tacos for the first time and I really liked quesadillas. Those are really good.”