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What we learned from Arizona’s win over Montana

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NCAA Basketball: Grambling State at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats overcame a rough first half to beat the Montana Grizzlies 70-64 on Tuesday to improve to 6-1 on the season.

Our recap can be found here, Sean Miller’s full postgame comments can be read/watched here, and below are some additional takeaways.

Azuolas is starting (for now, at least) and learning

Miller made his first starting lineup of the season by replacing Christian Koloko with Azuolas Tubelis. Miller thought it would provide an offensive punch and help avoid another slow start, plus allow Jordan Brown to play center, which is a better position for him offensively and defensively.

Arizona still trailed for almost the entire first half anyway, but it still turned out to be a nice night for Tubelis, who finished with six points, six rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists.

He flashed his versatile skill set in some of the most critical moments of the game.

The Lithuanian freshman sank a corner 3 to give Arizona an insurmountable 64-56 lead with 2:32 left, his second triple of the season. Before that, he made two crisp passes from the high post to find a cutting Bennedict Mathurin for a dunk a layup.

Tubelis was impactful defensively too, using active hands to come up with three second-half steals, including one right after he drained that corner 3.

“I’m a good defensive player, so I think I’m trying to show it now because I was not prepared for this basketball,” Tubelis said. “I didn’t knew how they played in the post.”

Tubelis is learning new things about college basketball every game and came away with another valuable lesson Tuesday: don’t hang or pull yourself up with the rim after a dunk.

Tubelis was assessed a technical foul for doing that in the first half, though he didn’t know why at the time.

“I almost feel bad as his coach because one time at our end he touched the basketball on the rim,” Miller said. “In FIBA you can touch the ball while it’s on the rim, and you can hang on the rim. That’s something that he learned tonight. And that’s why games are so important for this year’s team because we just have such inexperience, and you feel that. There’s some head-scratching plays that happened to our team. My hope is that we have less of those as we move on.”

Miller wouldn’t commit to keeping Tubelis in the starting lineup, but James Akinjo said Tubelis “came out with a lot of energy” and “it was a different look.”

“Azuolas can do a lot of different things and we see his progress right now almost on a daily basis,” Miller said. “It was just based on watching our team, what’s best for our team, we felt that that group of five gave us the best chance to get off to a good start.”

James Akinjo bounced back

Akinjo went 2 for 9 at the stripe in the loss at Stanford, including some big misses down the stretch that could have tied the game.

He didn’t let that carry over into Tuesday’s game where he made six straight free throws in the final minute to ice the game.

“Sometimes that’s the way ball bounces,” Akinjo said. “I thought, Stanford from the line, all those misses were real good misses. They all felt good coming off my hands, so I knew that next game they was gonna fall.”

That and Akinjo has proven to be a terrific free throw shooter. Take out that uncharacteristic night at Stanford, and he’s 25 for 29 on the season.

At Georgetown he made upwards of 80 percent of his free throws.

“It can become a confidence thing quickly from the line for young players,” Miller said. “I was really excited to see James bounce back. I mean, you talk about confidence, he’s 20 for 20 outside of the Stanford game in the last three games. ... That’s what really good free throw shooters do. You may have a subpar performance, but you put it behind you.”

Other than Akinjo, Arizona has free throw issues

Arizona only shoots 68 percent from the line as a team and five of its nine rotation players are shooting below 70 percent on the season.

Remove Akinjo’s six makes from Tuesday’s ledger and the Wildcats shot just 13 for 28 from the free throw line. Had they lost this game, that would have been the reason why, especially since Montana made 20 of its 22 freebies.

Miller said Arizona is working on its free throw shooting, but at some point it just comes down to making them when it counts.

“We’re a better free throw shooting team than we’ve shown,” he said. “We won the game against Eastern Washington because of our free throw shooting. Moving forward, we’re not going to have the luxury of shooting 55 percent and winning.”

Miller kept his promise

After being burned so many times by them on offense, Miller promised Arizona’s defense would start drawing more charges moving forward.

What do you know, they drew four of them Tuesday, including at least two in which an Arizona defender slid in front of a guard to cut off a driving lane.

“That might be more than we’ve drawn all year,” Miller said. “We learned from the Stanford game, I’ve addressed it, I’ve talked about it, we’re working on it. Those four charges are big plays in the game, in today’s game, but it’s the first time we’ve started to do that. And when you start to do that, you become a better defensive team.”

A big reason Arizona won is because it won the turnover margin 19-8, those charges playing a big role in that.

The good Jordan Brown reappeared

Coming into this game, I noted that Brown had not scored in double figures in three straight games. Well, he made me look dumb because he had 15 points vs. Montana on 5 of 5 shooting. He could have finished with even more if he didn’t miss four of his nine free throws.

At this point, it’s pretty clear how teams are trying to defend Brown on the low block: anticipate his moves and try to draw a charge.

Brown seem more measured when catching the ball around the basket this game, but still picked up an offensive foul (and a flagrant) in one instance by swinging an elbow into a defender’s face.

“He played a very good game, he just has to get smarter in certain areas.” Miller said. “The offensive fouls. At some point, it’s a little bit like our team drawing the charge tonight. You didn’t see that in the first five or six games, we adjusted, we became a better team because guys made those plays. Sometimes in and around the basket, it’s not hard turn, it’s having a little bit of a feel the guy is going to try to flop, take a charge on me, so I’m just going to turn softly and shoot a jump hook. Game experience helps that. We need him to get a little bit smarter in certain areas, and if he does, I think his game can really take off.”

Arizona players can finally sleep in

By NCAA rule, Arizona players now have three days off for Christmas break. While they will be staying in Tucson to limit their exposure to the coronavirus, they get a much-needed reprieve from their daily COVID-19 testing regimen.

“These guys have got to get tested every morning at 7:30,” Miller said. “Just not having to get up early I think is a victory for them at this point. I wish every one of them could go home for Christmas. I think we all kind of need a break, certainly they do. The way college basketball is right now, a lot of us are playing important conference games right at the beginning of the new year and at the end of December. We’re no different.”