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What we learned from Arizona’s win over Colorado

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Mike Mattina/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats picked up their first Pac-12 win of the season Monday by cruising past the Colorado Buffaloes 88-74 in McKale Center.

UA is now 7-1 overall and 1-1 in the conference heading into this weekend’s road games at Washington and Washington State.

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

An unexpected offensive outburst continued Colorado’s losing streak in McKale Center

The Buffaloes still have never won in McKale Center. Their last win at the UA came in the 1960s when the Wildcats still called Bear Down Gym home. (No, Sabatino Chen’s buzzer beater in 2013 does not count, Colorado fans.)

Monday looked like as good of a chance as any to snap that streak since the Buffaloes had a huge edge in experience and didn’t have to deal with the usual raucous Arizona crowd. They were only two-point underdogs.

Yet, the Wildcats made light work out of what had been a very solid Buffaloes defense. They shot right around 50 percent in both halves, only committed eight turnovers, and led the entire second half.

The ball was moving, Arizona was finding soft spots in the zone and pushing the pace, something no team has done against CU this season. UA was the first to score more than 69 points. Aside from the NAU game, it was their best offensive night of the season.

It seemed like even Miller was surprised by the way his team played, beginning his press conference with a statement instead of with questions from reporters.

“I was really proud of our team and our performance tonight (after) going home for Christmas or not going home for Christmas and handling COVID at the end of a semester,” he said. “We were really, fully engaged and really attentive to detail and ready to play this game. If we don’t win the game, I have no problem with our team’s effort approach. I’m really proud of our group doing what we did and playing and beating a very, very good Colorado team, experienced group there.”

This was a statement game for James Akinjo even if he won’t admit it

So much has been made about McKinley Wright IV and the numbers he’s been putting up this season, but James Akinjo completely outclassed him and, possibly, made a case of being the best point guard in the conference.

Not only was Akinjo red-hot from the perimeter, making five of his six 3s including a one-footer at the first half buzzer, but he also tallied eight assists, two steals and just two turnovers.

Wright was -16 on the night, while Akinjo was a +12.

The Colorado guard entered the game averaging 16.3 points, 5.9 assists and just 1.7 turnovers per game, and Arizona held him to 10 points (on 12 shots), 4 assists and 4 turnovers.

“We switch on ball screens, there’s help and recover, and there’s a lot of different things going on with defense, you have to give the credit to the team,” Miller said. “However, the guy that’s matched up individually have to be on it. They have to give great effort, concentration. It wasn’t just James, but I thought the guys that guarded McKinley worked hard because we know how important he is to Colorado. He’s a very, very good player. ... He’s one of college basketball’s best point guards, and tonight James Akinjo was terrific on our end.”

I asked Akinjo if he was extra motivated to face a star like Wright, but he gave quick glance at Terrell Brown next to him before shaking it off.

“No, I play every game the same,” he said. “I play every player like they’re the best point guard in the Pac-12. ... It was like playing basketball. I mean, he’s a good guard, but we feel like we got guards too. You guys respect him a lot but we believe in our guards and it wasn’t just me.”

Terrell Brown’s assist-to-turnover ratio is getting ridiculous now

While Akinjo put up the big numbers in Monday’s win, his wing man was Mr. Efficient. Brown had 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting plus seven assists and zero turnovers, steadying the second unit and preventing the Buffs from cutting the lead when Akinjo came off the court.

“That’s something I pride myself on, giving James a break, getting Jemarl (Baker) a break, come off the bench and making sure everything’s still being run the same exact way,” Brown said.

One of the most ridiculous stats of the season is that Brown’s assist-to-turnover ratio now sits at 30 to 3. He is top 75 in the country in both assist rate and turnover percentage.

He’s also converted 50 percent of his 3-point attempts, making the most of every touch he gets, just like he did at Seattle U when he was the No. 1 option there.

“One of the reasons that we were so excited to add Terrell is at Seattle, he was involved with a statistic of more assists per field goal made maybe almost than any player that played the game last year,” Miller said. “Seattle was an excellent team of not turning the ball over and he had the ball in his hand a lot. So, putting him out there with James, allowing him to be in there when James is out of the game and then at times having Jemarl, James and him in together, you have a really agile ball handling group. They take care of it and they make good decisions and I think they make their teammates better, but they also have a way of making each other better too.”

Christian Koloko had his best game of the season

Aggressive Christian Koloko is the best Christian Koloko.

The sophomore scored in double figures for the first time ever, thanks to four dunks and one layup. He went 5 for 7 from the field, with his misses being a tough reverse layup and a long mid-range jumper that clanged off the back rim.

But more often than not Koloko was catching and slamming everything in sight, which is what fans—and even his teammates—have been clamoring for.

“We say that a lot, but it’s easier said than done,” Brown said.

Tack on eight rebounds—four on each end—in just 18 minutes and it was a really nice bounceback night for Koloko after he combined for just two points and seven rebounds in the previous two games, causing him to get dropped from the starting lineup.

“He works and you want your hard work to translate to games, but as oftentimes is the case you need game experience to really settle in and gain confidence,” Miller said. “Confidence is big for Christian. His mental approach, he came back had two really good days of practice, maybe took a break here over the holidays that was much needed, but he had his best game of the season tonight against a very good frontline.”

Jemarl Baker’s development continues to show

Baker didn’t have his best shooting night, going just 4 for 11 from the field. However, he still finished with 14 points because he earned seven free throws and made five of them.

That may not seem like a big deal, but those were his most free throw attempts in a game at Arizona by a pretty wide margin. His previous high was four last year against St. John’s.

“He’s such a good shooter that teams are going to try to chase him off the 3-point line, and as you can see, he’s more adept at dribbling the ball and getting to the basket, more than you realize,” Miller said. “And he had some great drives tonight, which ended up in free throw attempts so I like that about his game.”

This was a valuable Quadrant I win

This could be a huge victory come March since it’s Arizona’s first Quadrant I win, which are considered the most impressive to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

Arizona’s non-conference schedule was weak and the Pac-12 isn’t that strong either, so the Wildcats need to capitalize when they get a chance to pick up a quality win. Oregon is the only other team on their schedule in KenPom’s Top 30.

This victory is also a boost to Arizona’s Pac-12 title hopes. Because of the strength of the conference (or lack thereof) and the unusual circumstances caused by the pandemic, it’s a pretty wide open race.

At 1-1 with a home win vs. Colorado and road loss to Stanford, Arizona isn’t in the best shape, but an 0-2 start would have put some serious pressure on them heading to the Pacific Northwest to face Washington and a surprise Washington State team.