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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts UT-Rio Grande Valley

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-texas-rio-grande-valley-vaqueros-preview-2021-mckale-center-wac Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tommy Lloyd era got off to a solid start on Tuesday with an 81-52 win over NAU. Now is our first chance to see how Arizona adjusts, if at all, after the results of a previous game when the Wildcats take on UT-Rio Grande Valley on Friday night at McKale Center.

UTRGV, which plays in the WAC, opened its season with a 15-point home win over Division II Texas A&M-Kingsville.

Here’s what to watch for on Friday night:

Finish over flair

Arizona averaged more than 1.17 points per possession against NAU but only shot 40.6 percent from the field. That was partly due to missing its final 11 shots over the last six-plus minutes of the game, but the Wildcats also failed to convert on quite a few east scoring chances throughout the game.

“I thought we left a lot of meat on the bone with some missed layups,” Lloyd said of Arizona, which was 13 of 24 on layups and 5 of 6 on dunks. “You make a few of those and your (offensive efficiency rating) is 1.3, which is amazing.”

The UA only turned the ball over six times, which Lloyd loved, though it could have been even fewer if not for some attempts at flashy lobs that didn’t work.

“At the end of the day, we just want points,” he said. “I don’t need style points we just need points.”

Keep sharing

Lloyd called Arizona’s 89.3 percent assist rate, with 25 dimes on 28 made field goals, “a little bit of an anomaly.” Kerr Kriisa thought otherwise.

“That’s some Warriors basketball right there,” he said. “That’s how we play, we pass the ball a lot.”

Dalen Terry had a career-high seven assists while Kriisa had five and both Justin Kier and Azuolas Tubelis had four. The last time Arizona had four players with at least four assists in the same game was in January 2020 when Dylan Smith (6), Nico Mannion (5), Jemarl Baker Jr. (4) and Josh Green (4) did it.

‘Contagious’ defense

While all the talk surrounding Lloyd and his style has been about Arizona’s offense, being effective on the other end remains important. The Gonzaga teams he coached were routinely in the top 50 in adjusted defense, finishing in the top 20 in four of the previous five seasons.

Arizona had a 0.74 defensive rating against NAU, better than in all but one game in 2021-22, and forced 21 turnovers. It had 11 steals, most since November 2019, but also drew five charges.

Kriisa was responsible for most of them, but Pelle Larrson also had one.

“I’m super happy that Pelle took a charge, so it shows that it’s … what’s the word? Contagious,” Kriisa said. “That kind of sets the tone that we’re gonna play hard.”

Benn’s hopeful bounceback

Bennedict Mathurin is coming off a rough shooting night in the opener, going 2 for 13 overall and 0 for 4 from 3-point range. Five of his misses were on layups.

Not exactly what you want from a guy on the preseason all-conference team and the watch list for the Jerry West Award.

One game isn’t enough to worry about, 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,” he said. “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.”

Mathurin, who shot 47.1 percent in 2020-21, has only once had consecutive games shooting below 30 percent.

A relatively unknown opponent

UTRGV is coached by Matt Figger, who was hired in March after four seasons at Austin Peay. The Vaqueros’ previous coach, Lew Hill, passed away in February a day after coaching his team in a road loss at Texas Southern.

Only four players from last year’s 9-10 squad are back for UTRGV, with guards Laquan Butler and Quinton Johnson II the top returners. The 6-foot Butler had 19 points against Texas A&M-Kingsville after averaging 9.1 per game last season.

Guards Mike Adewunmi, a transfer from SIU-Edwardsville, and Justin Johnson, a transfer from Southern Miss, are among a slew of newcomers on the roster.

UTRGV, a school formed by the merger of UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American in 2015, is 2-11 all-time against Pac-12 schools. That technically includes a win at McKale (as UTPA) over Arizona in 1983 during Lute Olson’s first season.

The Vaqueros’ last win over a power-conference opponent came at Baylor in 2004.