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What we learned from Arizona’s win over NAU

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Mike Mattina/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats routed NAU 96-53 on Monday to improve to 3-0 on the season. Our full recap can be found here, Sean Miller’s postgame press conference can be watched/read here, and below are some additional takeaways from the win.

Baker’s big night shows he’s better off the ball

Jemarl Baker Jr. did something that not even guys like Deandre Ayton, Derrick Williams, Nick Johnson and other Miller-coached players could at Arizona: score 33 points in a game.

Baker was cooking (get it?) from the jump, making all five of his first-half threes and his first two triples of the second half, eventually finishing 7 for 9 from deep, 12 of 16 from the field and 2 for 2 from the free throw line.

Baker’s 3-point shooting has been lauded by Miller ever since he arrived from Kentucky, but it hadn’t really translated the court other than a game here or there. (Remember that Washington game in Seattle last season?)

Baker shot just 34 percent from 3 in his first season at Arizona, a below average mark, yet still better than he shot in his lone season at Kentucky.

It looks like a role change could be exactly what he needs to find his rhythm for good. Now that Arizona has more ball-handers, Baker is spending less time at the point and getting more spot-ups.

Proof?

All seven of his 3-pointers Monday were assisted on—four by Dalen Terry, two by Terrell Brown and one by James Akinjo. They came in transition, off screens and via swing passes.

Not all of them were wide open, but they were in rhythm. Baker does a nice job of keeping his hands in the ready position.

“It’s hard to be a really consistent shooter when he had the role that he had on last year’s team,” Miller said. “Although he was a very important role and he was a good player for us, to really get going shooting you need opportunity and he has that on this year’s team. ... I don’t care who we played tonight or what the score was, the way he moved and shot the ball I think speaks for itself.”

Aside from a role change, Baker is also due for a better season because he’s finally healthy. Knee injuries hindered him in first two seasons of college. He used the offseason to recover and get in better shape.

“If you just look at him, I’ve seen some of the games that we played last year, his body has really leaned out,” Miller said. “He’s right now about 5% body fat and he’s strong in a good way. He’s experienced and I think he’s ready certainly to build on what he did a year ago and be an overall more productive and better player. He was lights out tonight. I mean, there aren’t too many guards who’ve had a game this season already like like he had tonight. I mean, he was terrific.”

Arizona doesn’t have a lot of proven shooters, so Baker emerging the way he did Monday is huge for the trajectory of this team. Same with Bennedict Mathurin, who went 2 for 3 behind the arc and is 4 for 9 for the season.

The small lineups push the pace and create better offense

Arizona went small in this game, often using Terry and Mathurin at the 3 and 4 with one big man along with Baker, James Akinjo and/or Terrell Brown. Terry and Mathurin combined for 46 minutes, four more than Christian Koloko, Azuolas Tubelis and Ira Lee combined.

With so much ball-handling and athleticism on the court, the Wildcats were relentless in transition, creating 30 fast break points, helping them shoot a ridiculous 67 percent from the field and post their highest offensive rating (140.9) since the road win over Washington State in 2017-18.

That was after their offensive rating was below 100 against Grambling State and Eastern Washington.

“If you can get out in transition, those are where the easier shots exist and I thought we really went defense to offense, especially in the first half,” Miller said.

It’s important to note that only seven of those 30 fastbreak points came off turnovers. Arizona did a great job of pushing the ball off made and missed shots, the kind of transition offense that is sustainable when they start playing better teams. (The conservative man-to-man defense they play means they are never going to be a team that consistently forces good teams into a lot of turnovers.)

Welcome back, Jordan

Jordan Brown struggled against Eastern Washington, being almost completely taken out of the game by some aggressive double teams and foul trouble. He had just six points and three rebounds in 18 minutes before fouling out.

But he was much more measured against NAU, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds while going 6 for 6 from the field and 5 for 5 from the free-throw line. Just the Grambling game, Brown was an unstoppable force on the low block, using that right-handed baby hook that is clearly his go-to move.

“I wasn’t as sped up as I was the previous game,” Brown said. “I kinda just played my game and let offense come to me.”

Brown was only called for one offensive foul against NAU, two fewer than he had against Eastern Washington. Relatedly, he cut his turnovers down from five to one.

“He’s adjusted to teams taking the charge in the post and the way the game is call as I explained after our last game,” Miller said. “We showed him film, we talked to him and tonight he slowed down a couple of times, really let the defense tell him what to do. And when he gets the ball in and around the paint, he’s got a great touch. Two of the first three games he’s played he’s been terrific.”

Though his performance against NAU actually went a little under-the-radar because of Baker’s hot shooting.

“I don’t even think I gave him credit after the game,” Miller chuckled.

Dalen Terry doesn’t need to score to impact the game

Terry did pretty much everything but hit a 3 in this game. The freshman had three blocks, was opportunistic in the passing lanes, dunked in transition, drove for a layup, tracked down three rebounds, and dished out a team-high six assists, making impressive passes in the halfcourt and transition.

At 6-foot-7, Terry can play every position but center, and always seems to be around the ball. It’s fun to watch.

Well, except for when he gets to the free throw line where he was 1 for 6 on Monday and is 8 for 15 for the season.

Free throw shooting problems aren’t limited to Terry

Arizona is only shooting 65.4 percent from the stripe as a team. That’s its lowest mark since the 2013-14 team that was bogged down by Aaron Gordon’s 42.2 percent clip.

It’s not like there’s been an outlier that has skewed the numbers, either. Here’s how Arizona has fared at the stripe in its first three games:

  • vs. Grambling State: 21-29 (72.4%)
  • vs. Eastern Washington: 11-18 (61.1%)
  • vs. Northern Arizona: 19-31 (61.3%)

Jordan Brown, Lee and Mathurin are the only players sitting above 70 percent right now. This isn’t an easy problem to fix. There’s nothing you can do besides practice and hope it translates to the game. Maybe the shots will start falling when they get more accustomed to the fanless environment.

Free Tibet (and Tautvilas)!

With this game being such a blowout, we finally got to see freshmen Tibet Görener and Tautvilas Tubelis debut.

Görener drained two 3s in six minutes.

Tautvilas caught a duck-in, drew a foul and split a pair of free throws.

Neither is likely to see any important minutes this season, but I’m excited to see Görener develop. His shooting stroke is so smooth, especially for his size.

“At 6-foot-8, as he gets bigger and stronger down the road, he’s going to be a very good player for us,” Miller said.

Azuolas struggled, but at least he avoided a serious injury

It was a tough night for Azuolas Tubelis, who failed to build on the 13-point, 9-rebound outburst he had against Eastern Washington.

He fouled out in just 10 minutes and battled an ankle injury he suffered in the first half while hedging a screen. Tubelis went to the locker room for a moment, but returned to the game, so we can assume it’s a pretty minor ailment.

“These freshmen are freshmen,” Miller made sure to note. “They’re gonna learn. Sometimes they’re going to play really well and other times, they may not have as good a game as we’d like them to have. But those guys are important to us.”

Hopefully Jason Terry is OK

The first-year assistant coach was not on the bench for Monday’s game after receiving inconclusive results from his daily COVID-19 test.

Terry will be re-tested Tuesday, which is now a huge day for the program.

If he tests positive, it could force other players and staffers to quarantine due to contact tracing protocols. That could possibly cause the Wildcats to cancel games and pause basketball activities like so many of their opponents have done so far.

So cross your fingers that Terry is OK and the show can go on.