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What to watch for when Arizona hosts NAU on Monday

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats (2-0) will return to the court Monday against another Big Sky team, this time the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks.

This game was originally scheduled for Nov. 25, but was postponed after a positive COVID-19 case surfaced within the NAU program.

Coming off their first winning season in five years, NAU was picked to finish eighth in the Big Sky this year.

The Lumberjacks currently rank 306th (of 351) in KenPom after finishing 215th last season, their best rating since 2014-15 when they were coached by current UA associate head coach Jack Murphy, who was hired away from NAU after the 2018-19 season.

Arizona is 99-27 all-time against the Lumberjacks, winning every matchup since 1968. They will go for their 100th win at 7 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.

Here are some things to watch for.

NAU’s rust and energy

The Lumberjacks were forced to pause basketball activities due a COVID case within their program, meaning Monday’s game is their first of the season. NAU only returns two starters, so you can expect to see some rust but also a ton of energy as well.

“We’re excited about Monday for many reasons,” head coach Shane Burcar said via NAU’s website. “We thought we were going to play a week and a half ago, but I’m excited for the guys to get out there and compete. We’ve put a lot of hard work in and we’ve had a lot of obstacles with stops in the summer, stops in the fall and stops recently. But we can’t wait to get out there and play basketball – something we’ve all been doing since we were little kids.”

Arizona’s shot selection

Arizona has struggled with their shooting, whether that be 3s, mid-range jumpers and even free throws. You can’t abandon those shots altogether, but you can make sure that you’re taking smarter ones and playing to your strengths.

That is...driving, creating transition opportunities, and pounding the ball inside to Jordan Brown and Azuolas Tubelis, who should have a major size advantage.

The Lumberjacks were a terrible defensive team last year, ranking 301st in the country at defending 2s and 315th at defending 3s.

Limiting offensive fouls

Arizona head coach Sean Miller went on an incredible rant Saturday, subtly criticizing college basketball officials for rewarding defenders for flopping and running into screens, going as far to say that Arizona would start practicing that.

“We have to kind of join the party and flop, and run full speed and take fouls with our chest and slide in underneath,” he said after the Eastern Washington game. “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.”

The Wildcats have been a victim of a bunch of those plays, committing 11 offensive fouls in two games. It has put guys like Brown and Christian Koloko in foul trouble and hindered the team’s offensive efficiency.

Arizona’s turnover rate (20.4) is currently the highest it’s ever been under Miller.

Whether or not you agree with how the game is being officiated—and it’s safe to say Miller is not a fan—the Wildcats have to do what they can to avoid those double whammies.

Defending the 3

NAU didn’t do many things well last season, but it did shoot a pretty solid percentage from the 3-point line (35.3).

The Lumberjacks didn’t take them at nearly the same rate that Eastern Washington does, so you probably don’t have to worry seeing a barrage of them like we did Saturday, but you’d still like to see Arizona’s perimeter defense be sharper and avoid those communication breakdowns that led to wide open looks.

Arizona learned against EWU that going small and having more switchability can be a big help against these guard-heavy mid-majors.

Mathurin and Akinjo’s minutes

Miller said Arizona will stick with its nine-man rotation for now, but also said that those nine players could see their minutes fluctuate. He then mentioned Bennedict Mathurin as someone who could receive more playing time.

The athletic freshman is averaging 18 minutes per game right now and has been pretty productive when on the court, leading the Wildcats in points (20.0) and free throw attempts (11.1) per 40 minutes.

Where could those additional minutes come from? Possibly from James Akinjo, who’s been on the court virtually every minute this season, only resting eight of 80 minutes.

With Arizona currently in a stretch of four games in eight days, it wouldn’t hurt to lessen his workload even though he, like everyone else, is probably dying to play after having three games get cancelled for COVID reasons.

Besides, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to see how Arizona fares without Akinjo running the point. There could come a time when they’re without him, whether that be because of injuries, illness, foul trouble, etc.

A frontcourt shuffle

Brown is clearly Arizona’s best big, but things get fuzzy from there. Koloko starts alongside him but has really struggled offensively and only played nine minutes against Eastern Washington.

Azuolas Tubelis is coming off a breakout game in which he had 13 points and nine rebounds, doing a lot of good things on offense, including finishing opportunities at the rim and making his mid-range jumpers, something Koloko hasn’t been able to do yet.

The always-active Ira Lee proved his value as a perimeter defender, one who matches up better against these smaller mid-major teams than Koloko.

While I don’t think Miller will remove Koloko from the starting lineup just yet, it will be interesting to see how many minutes he gets and if he can make some positive plays on offense. We know he can rebound and protect the rim, but his offensive rating (78.3) is easily the lowest on the team right now.

Will Kerr play or even be in the building?

The Wildcats are still waiting to hear from the NCAA if/when Kerr Kriisa will be eligible to play this season. While he is able to practice and participate in other team activities, he wasn’t in McKale Center for the first two games.

He was with the Estonian national team during the Grambling State game and in mandatory quarantine in Tucson when the Wildcats hosted Eastern Washington. (That’s the COVID protocol when someone returns from a foreign country.)

Miller didn’t provide any kind of timetable for when Kriisa could be cleared to play or come out of quarantine, so we’ll have to keep an eye out for him until then.