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What we learned from Arizona’s season-opening win over NAU

arizona-wildcats-nau-lumberjacks-reaction-analysis-stats-trends-kerr-kriisa-oumar-ballo-tommy-lloyd Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tommy Lloyd era got off to a successful start on Tuesday, with the Arizona Wildcats easily beating NAU 81-52 at McKale Center.

It was far from a perfect game, and Lloyd planned on briefly mentioning that to his team when he got back to the locker room. But his players had other ideas.

“It literally caught me off guard,” Lloyd said. “I was going to go in there, congratulate the guys, tell them we got some work to do. I’ve been in a lot of locker room celebrations, I’ve been fortunate, but I’ve always been a guy that’s been a little more behind the scenes. It was a great moment.”

Our recap can be found here, and what Lloyd, Kerr Kriisa and Dalen Terry had to say afterward can be found here.

Below is what stood out most from Arizona’s season-opening victory:

Kerr has ‘sway’ with Lloyd

Lloyd didn’t recruit Kerr Kriisa to Arizona, but he’s already showing he’s just the kind of guy the Wildcats’ new coach wants leading his offense. The sophomore guard had a career-high 17 points in 29 minutes, making 6 of 14 shots including 4 of 10 3-pointers, and added five assists.

He also didn’t turn the ball over despite having the second-highest usage rate on the team.

“I’ve been steadfast in my belief in him, and I think he’s going to have a really good year,” Lloyd said. “I think he’s going to be one of the better point guards in college basketball. I love having him out there and I feel really good every second he’s out there.”

Kriisa’s defense was also on display against NAU, drawing multiple charges including on consecutive possessions.

“He’s got great feet, great activity, great energy,” Lloyd said. “And he’s got a knock for taking charges. He has maybe the best charge-taking percentage I’ve ever seen. It seems like 80, 90 percent of the time he’s getting charges.”

Lloyd compared Kriisa to former UA point guard TJ McConnell and ex-Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos, saying he had “some of TJ’s grittiness and Pangos’ shooting.” He also apparently has some “sway” with his head coach to do what he wants at times, including rocking a headband.

“As long as he plays with confidence, he plays with high effort and he plays with intelligence, okay, then I’ll let him be swaggy,” Lloyd said. “But if he doesn’t play with intelligence, he doesn’t play with great effort, he can’t wear the headband.”

Dalen loves to dish, as does the whole team

Arizona assisted on 25 of 28 made field goals, an 89.3 percent assist rate that Kriisa called “some Warriors basketball right there.” Five Wildcats had at least four assists, with Dalen Terry recording a career-high seven including six in the first half.

“That’s the way our offense is, I was in a lot of positions where I could have either shot it or go for the assist,” said Terry, who also had 11 points. “I take pride in my assists. I always play with a pass-first mindset, and so now I feel like in this system I’m allowed to show my vision a little bit more.”

In addition to Terry (7) and Kriisa (5), Justin Kier and Azuolas Tubelis both had four assists and Benn Mathurin had two. And those 25 assists came against six turnovers, which is what Lloyd liked the most.

The attempts at flash, that led to most of the giveaways, not so much.

“Maybe we had some that we felt like were close to turnovers,” he said. “DT threw some of those lobs, I don’t know who would have caught them, they were so high. At the end of the day, we just want points. I don’t need style points.”

Benn had a bad game and now has to bounce back like he did last year

Preseason all-conference pick Bennedict Mathurin was 2 of 13 from the field, finishing with eight points in 25 minutes. He was 2 of 9 on 2-point shots, with most of his misses coming close to the basket.

“I think most of Benn’s struggles were with finishing,” Lloyd said. “Finishing is a lot tougher than it looks, especially when you get in there with the physicality and the vertical contesting these refs were allowing. I think if he makes a few of those lay-ins we all feel a little better about it. But all in all I think he’s getting right to where he needs to be, he just has to kind of refine his plan under the lights and in the moment, getting either baskets or free throws when we get the ball that close.”

How Mathurin does Friday against UT-Rio Grande Valley will determine if this was just a blip or something more. And if last year is any indication, he knows how to make adjustments from game to game.

On three occasions in 2020-21, Mathurin followed up a game shooting below 30 percent by having a monster outing. He combined for 37 points and 17 rebounds in wins at Washington and Washington State after going scoreless against Colorado, had 22 on 7-of-9 shooting at Colorado after going 1 for 6 at Utah and followed back-to-back games without field goals at UCLA and USC with a 14-point, 5-of-7 effort against WSU.

“It’s going to happen,” Lloyd said when asked what he’d say to Mathurin about Tuesday. “You’re a really good player, let’s step back and take a look at maybe where some of the struggles were.”

Oumar is this team’s Ira Lee, but with bigger upside

At 7-feet and 260 pounds, Oumar Ballo is a massive presence on the court. And Lloyd wants him to use that size to his advantage in whatever way possible.

On Tuesday that meant scoring eight points and pulling down nine rebounds in just 10 minutes of play. Ballo was 1 of 3 from the field and 6 of 6 from the line.

“It’s great to see him just be a physical force and a rim protector and rebound above the rim and finish shots,” Lloyd said. “And I think he did a great job shooting his free throws.”

Ballo, who was with Lloyd at Gonzaga for two seasons but hardly played, has improved immensely since the preseason began. Lloyd said he struggled in Arizona’s scrimmage against Saint Mary’s, which prompted the coaching staff to get on him, and he responded with several great weeks of practice.

“Oumar’s had a tough journey, and he’s been with me for a long time, and it hasn’t been easy, and I love him for sticking with it,” Lloyd said. “And it didn’t start easy today.”

Ballo played less than two minutes in the first half, during which he made a few mistakes, then shortly after he entered in the second half he was called for an offensive foul.

“I just told him, this game challenges you,” Lloyd said. “It doesn’t let things come easy. You’ve got to keep your head up and keep fighting and keep moving forward. I was really happy to see him kind of respond.”

After that Ballo had a dunk after catching a lob from Kier, bringing it down and then back up again rather than try to force it on in the air, and down the stretch he drew three shooting fouls and also recorded two blocks while grabbing five offensive boards.