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What we learned from Arizona’s close call vs. Eastern Washington

Azuolas Tubelis
Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats rallied to beat Eastern Washington 70-67 on Saturday to improve to 2-0 on the season.

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

Arizona’s defense was tested and almost failed

If not for the mandatory break, the Eagles and their 5-out offense might have won this game.

After a cold start that had more to do with them missing good shots than Arizona forcing them to take bad ones, Eastern Washington finally found its stroke and swished seven straight 3s to finish the first half with a 41-38 lead.

Then halftime came and EWU was never the same. The Eagles missed their first nine shots out of the break, allowing Arizona to re-take the lead.

Those 15 minutes in the locker room cooled the Eagles off and gave the Wildcats time to make some key adjustments.

Among them: The Wildcats went small, using only one big for most of the second half. That gave them the quickness they needed to defend the Eagles’ pace-and-space attack. Arizona also communicated better on switches, avoiding some of the breakdowns that led to wide open 3s and layups.

“They were 7 for 28 from the field in the second half and 2 for 15 from 3,” Miller noted. “I thought our defense was much, much better. Were we perfect? No, we still had some breakdowns. But I thought we wore them down a little bit and our defense in the second half was a big reason we won the game.”

It might have been a blessing in disguise that Jordan Brown was in foul trouble and Christian Koloko was struggling, giving Miller no choice but to play the mobile Ira Lee for 20 minutes, his first game back from a concussion.

“We were really able to utilize Ira’s athleticism and quickness to help us switch and take away the 3-point shot,” Miller said. “When you have to switch as much as we did in that game, it puts a lot of pressure on drives, a lot of pressure on communication, and some of the breakdowns that we had I wish we were better at it, but we failed. Two guys went with the ball. We had a couple breakdowns where we switched when we weren’t supposed to. And as we sub and as they sub, the game changes. So it’s all about experience right now, and the more experience we get the better overall group we will be.”

Arizona players stopped short of calling this a wake-up call—these were the reigning Big Sky champs after all—but it at least opened their eyes about the importance of getting the little details down.

“We knew how dangerous they were, but I think now we know we gotta be more focused,” Terrell Brown said. “I think it’s a good win for us because it came down to the last minute and we showed a lot of grit and toughness.”

Azuolas’ stock is up

Azuolas Tubelis was quiet against Grambling State, but flashed his versatile skillset against Eastern Washington. He made mid-range jumpers, pushed and finished in transition, and did a great job of making himself available around the rim on drives.

The freshman played the 4 and the 5, finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds on 5-of-12 shooting, earning MVP honors from KenPom. Miller said we can expect more of that from the Lithuanian forward.

“He’s a lot like Zeke Nnaji and Deandre Ayton in that he has like this uncanny touch from about 15 to 17 feet—those tough baseline jump shots, elbow jumpers just inside the 3-point line that sometimes you’re like, ‘I don’t know if that’s a good shot,’” Miller said. “That is a good shot for him. And I think his range will continue to grow and increase as he gets older and practices more. And most importantly, and I saw it with Lauri Markkanen, he’s starting to learn the physicality around the basket. He is more sure of himself, he pursued the ball with two hands. A couple of times of he got fouled he was very close to finishing and he helped us on the offensive glass more. But he’s getting more accustomed to the difference of style, but he played very good tonight. I don’t think we would have won the ballgame if he didn’t take the step forward that he did take.”

Koloko’s stock is down

If Tubelis took a step forward, Koloko took a step back.

The sophomore struggled again, finishing with two points, five rebounds and two turnovers in nine minutes. He missed another easy look around the rim, which led to a 3-pointer for EWU the other way and the Eagles grabbing a 50-47 lead with 11:42 left in the second half.

This was a tough matchup for Koloko, but if this continues, you wonder if Tubelis will take his place in the starting lineup.

The transformation of Terrell Brown continues

The last time Brown faced Eastern Washington, he was a member of Seattle U and dropped a career-high 31 points on the Eagles.

He’s a completely different player in an Arizona uniform. So far he has as many assists (10) as shot attempts.

Yet, his impact on this game was clear down the stretch. With Arizona up three with 6:45 left, Brown deflected a swing pass that resulted in an Eastern Washington turnover.

He then found Dalen Terry for a backdoor layup to put Arizona up 58-57 and made a floater to give the Wildcats a 61-60 lead a little bit later.

Brown had the best plus/minus on the team (+12) and seems to be settling into his new role as a secondary creator.

“It’s something that he does well and it frees James (Akinjo) up to kind of attack the basket off the ball some,” Miller said. “We did go small at the end. I thought that helped us defend the 3-point shot on defense, and it maybe allowed us to drive the ball.”

The quicker this team learns it’s not great at shooting, the better

The early verdict is that Arizona isn’t not a good shooting team. So far, the Wildcats are 12 for 40 from 3, shooting 68 percent from the free throw line, while taking—and missing—a lot of mid-range jumpers off the dribble.

With their size, ball-handling and athleticism, they should be driving, pushing the ball in transition and finding guys like Tubelis and Jordan Brown on the block instead.

Another reason this game was a good learning experience.

“Most of our baskets down the stretch were shots right at the rim and again that’s what our team has to learn,” Miller said. “We shot some tough, off-the-dribble pull up 2s in the first half. Even a couple that we made. I mean, we’re not going to win shooting those types of shots. We want drives and post-ups. We want to attack so we get fouled and we want to create wide open one-two step 3-point shots. But until we play a couple games, you’re not going to be able to learn that.”

Arizona misses its home crowd, but created its own energy to come back

The Wildcats trailed 56-48 with 8:42 left. It was the kind of situation where the McKale Center crowd would have gotten on its feet and pumped some life into the team.

Fans are banned from the arena for the foreseeable future, so give credit to the players for buckling down and fueling their own comeback.

“I feel like we all come from different places, especially for this team, all around the world. But for the American kids, we all played AAU basketball,” Terry said. “I played in a lot of empty gyms. The bench has to get into it, the coach has to get into it, we gotta make plays to excite each other.”

“We ain’t trying to lose, either,” Terrell Brown added. “That’s the biggest thing. We want to prove a lot of people wrong, and that’s the chip we have on our shoulder.”

Arizona has a nine-man rotation until Kerr Kriisa gets cleared

Miller confirmed that Tibet Görener and Tautvilas Tubelis are available to play, which means they aren’t ready to contribute yet. Neither has gotten any action through the first two games and probably won’t for a while.

“I think nine guys is where we’re at,” Miller said of the rotation. “I could see that some guys like Ben Mathurin continue to get more opportunities as he’s more sure of himself. Ditto for Azuolas. And there might be a few guys that get less opportunity. But right now that’s the group.”

Jordan Brown had a rough game, but some of it had to do with spotty officiating

Brown looked uncomfortable on the block at times, but he was also whistled for some questionable offensive fouls. That was a double whammy because it meant he was in foul trouble all game AND piling up the turnovers.

Brown finished with five and fouled out after just 18 minutes, ending with just six points and three rebounds—a far cry from the 19 points and 15 rebounds he had against Grambling State.

“We have to clean that up ourselves,” Miller said before taking a jab at the officiating. “We have to kind of join the party and flop, and run full speed and take fouls with our chest and slide in underneath. And any low post guy, when he turns, draw the charge and teach it because those are big plays.

“Those are turnovers on the offense, fouls on the other team’s good player, and a lot of times it erases a basket. I mean, I think we had one or two where we were rim running without the ball in transition, had our hands up, trying to get position, and if the defender just falls down, there’s a chance that it’s an offensive foul. It’s a hard game to watch and I think it’s really the only game that’s really called like that. But that’s the rules, that’s how it’s being called, and I think it’s something that really even tomorrow we’re going to work hard on—fall down, fall down, fall down, run into screens, run into screens, just throw your head back and draw charges instead of trying to go vertical.”