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What we learned from Arizona’s blowout win over Cal

Mike Mattina/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats returned to the win column Saturday by blowing out the California Golden Bears 71-50 in McKale Center.

UA improves to 13-4 overall and 7-4 in the Pac-12 heading into road games against Utah and Colorado.

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

It was James Akinjo’s best game as a Wildcat

At least that’s what Miller thought. Akinjo wasn’t sure if he agreed, but his stat line was stellar: 20 points, plus eight assists and zero turnovers. It was his first game without a turnover since he was a freshman at Georgetown in 2018-19.

“That means that you’re in total command of the game, and you’re making your teammates better,” Miller said. “But he also was 7 for 14 from the floor and I thought he really defended, on and off ball, played (with) a lot of energy. I think James is becoming an all-conference player. He was really, really good tonight. He was one of many guys that responded, and I thought really bounced back from our Stanford loss, and it was great to see him lead the charge tonight.”

As I analyzed earlier in the week, Akinjo has been on a tear lately, seeing his numbers jump across the board ever since Jemarl Baker Jr. was lost for the season on Jan. 9. Saturday was Akinjo’s third 20-point outing in his last six games.

He denied that he has been doing anything different.

“No, I’ve been shooting the same,” he said. “Sometimes throughout the season, as you go on, shots just don’t go in. My coaches and my teammates see me working and they continue to give me the same confidence I’ve always had, and then just stick with it. Same shot every time, same rhythm, and I’m real confident on my shot.”

And with his passing. Akinjo made a slick behind-the-back pass to Azuolas Tubelis for a transition dunk, the second straight game he has made a highlight pass.

“It happened so fast but it’s all instinctual,” Akinjo said. “... I want to have a little fun while I’m out there so my guys have fun too.”

Here’s both of them in case you forgot:

This was an important game for Miller

The Pac-12 Network broadcast mentioned that Miller said Saturday’s game was the most important game of the season. That seems ridiculous because Cal is awful, but he felt that way because he didn’t think his team played with their usual togetherness in the loss to Stanford and wanted to see how they would respond a couple days later.

Pretty well! Arizona shot 52%, held Cal to 38% shooting and won the turnover, rebounding and points-in-the-paint battles easily.

Miller called it one of UA’s best performances all season.

“The reason is because of really how I think we all felt, but especially how I felt, leaving the Stanford game,” he said. “We had a lead under the 8-minute media timeout of five points and we went out there and we just got smashed. We just broke down, we gave in. We just had a kind of a selfishness about us across the board. It’s not gonna allow our team to be successful.

“Keep in mind, we have a lot of young players a lot of new faces. You could have the greatest team chemistry and the best team in the country and there’s going to be those weeks, those games, where things happen and I think it’s more about how you handle it, how you can bounce back, how you can address it when those things happen so that they don’t happen again. Or we can fix some of the things that we saw. I didn’t know how this would go. On top of that this is our fourth game in 10 days. I didn’t think we had the energy the other night, but we did have the energy tonight. So what does that tell you? It probably tells you that we were guilty of some of these things that I’m referring to as opposed to we were just too tired. We had enough. We just didn’t get the job done.”

Benn’s ankle is fine

Mathurin played pretty well in 23 minutes against Stanford on Thursday, so it was no surprise to see him back in the starting lineup against Cal.

Mathurin hardly looked hobbled. In one short burst, he laid in a backdoor lob then sized up his defender before sinking a pull-up 3.

The freshman finished with 10 points and three rebounds on 4-of-8 shooting including a pair of 3s in 33 minutes. That makes it nine straight games that Mathurin has scored eight or more points.

Like Akinjo, Brown brought it against the team from his home state

Jordan Brown has quietly been battling an ankle injury too, but he turned in one of his best performances of the season as well, with 12 points, three blocks and a pair of rebounds on 5-of-7 shooting.

It was his first double-figure scoring game since he dropped 25 points at Oregon State. Other than that, Brown had not scored in double figures since Dec. 31 vs. Colorado.

Were Brown and Akinjo, two Northern California natives, extra motivated to face Cal?

“They don’t really have Northern California guys on their team, so not really,” Akinjo said.

Christian Koloko’s 3-block streak finally ended

The 7-footer had three blocks in four straight games, but that streak was snapped against Cal as he went without a block for the first time since Jan. 7 vs. USC.

Ironically, it was one of his best games anyway. He finished with nine points, six rebounds and three steals in 18 minutes.

For the season, Koloko has a block percentage of 10.1, good for 26th-best in the country. His per-minute numbers are almost identical across the board to his freshman season.

It’s time to get some rest—and then it’s Kerr’s time to shine

The Wildcats are now off till Thursday, which allows them to get some much-needed rest before taking on Utah.

Miller said Arizona will take Sunday off and “be smart” on Monday.

“We have a big trip coming up,” he said. “I think it’s A, to encourage our guys to stick with their COVID protocols, it’s still out there. We’ve been able to get to the end of January here, just making solid decisions, and then really making sure that everybody understands, winning on the road, playing (the Rocky Mountain) trip where you have two flights, is not easy. I think the final part is just to kind of review the team we were against Stanford, and the same group went back out here today, and some of the things that I thought we did better. That’s how we have to be. That’s how we have to be moving forward.”

Arizona will add some much-needed depth to its guard rotation when Kerr Kriisa will debut Thursday after missing the first 17 games due to an NCAA suspension. Just having another ball-handler will be huge, as Akinjo and Terrell Brown have seen their minutes soar since Baker and then Mathurin) got injured.

Kerr’s shooting will help too, although Arizona has been sneaky good at the 3-point line this season, now ranking 29th in the country after a 6-for-13 night against Cal.

“It’ll be really really big to have Kerr back,” Miller said. “I’ll caution everybody. ... It’s really a very difficult situation for Kerr to play his first college game ever when everybody that he’s playing with and against are on game 15, game 16, especially in the middle of the season. We’re going to be in February, we’re on an away court. So I think the first things first, him being able to settle into a role, where he can come in the game, and sub out James, sub out Terrell, and kind of get a good feel about being out there. I’m sure he’s incredibly nervous.

“The good thing for Kerr is, he’s healthy. He’s been able to practice with us really the entire semester. Other than when he went home with his national team and when he suffered a concussion, other than those two periods of time, he practices with us, he goes to shootaround, he knows our plays, he knows our system. He’s not starting from scratch there. We just, I think, are going to welcome him to our team simply because we’re starving for a perimeter player, and he’s that. He could play both 1 and the 2. He’s an excellent shooter. He’s a very, very good player. But I think it’ll take him some time to get comfortable.”

Daniel Batcho wasn’t feeling well

The French freshman was not on the bench for Saturday’s game because he “wasn’t feeling well,” Miller said. He declined to say if Batcho’s illness was related to COVID-19. Probably not because Batcho is expected to travel with the team to Utah and Colorado.

Batcho had knee surgery in October and is unlikely to play this season, but is recovering well by all accounts, throwing down dunks in warmups before previous games.

Cal is not good

Like, at anything. Here is their KenPom scouting report. Notice there is very little green on it and a whole lot of red.