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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts Northern Colorado

arizona-wildcats-college-basketball-northern-colorado-bears-preview-2021-mathurin-koloko-ballo Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fresh off its biggest win of the season, one that vaulted it into the Top 10 for the first time in three seasons, the Arizona Wildcats are back at it Wednesday night when they host Northern Colorado at McKale Center.

The Wildcats (9-0) are home for the next two games, hosting the Bears and then Cal Baptist on Saturday before starting a 4-game road trip that includes three ranked opponents. That stretch could make or break Arizona’s season, but coach Tommy Lloyd said he and his staff are doing their best to keep the team focused on the immediate opponent and not those in the future.

“We haven’t talked about anything after Christmas, we haven’t talked about anything after Northern Colorado,” Lloyd said Tuesday. “We’re gonna approach it (like that), and if I feel like the guys are letting their guards down or relaxing, I’ll let them know. That’s how I approach it.”

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Arizona is a 24-point favorite.

Here’s what to watch for in Wednesday’s game:

Learning from the struggle

Bennedict Mathurin is playing like the best player in college basketball right now, having won consecutive Pac-12 Player of the Week awards and also earning Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week honors. But it wasn’t that long ago that he was struggling, starting the year 6 of 21 from the field and 2 of 10 from 3-point range.

Lloyd believes that, had Mathurin not had those early struggles, he might not be playing as well as he is right now, and the current offensive dip that center Christian Koloko is on could benefit him in the long run as well.

“I think starting out slow was a great thing for him,” Lloyd said of Mathurin. “We could kind of delve into what does the process of playing good look like, and how do you recreate that over and over and over again, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

Koloko is averaging only 7.3 points per game over his last three, shooting 42.9 percent in that span, after opening the season shooting 69.2 percent and averaging 16.2 points. Against Illinois he had a season-low four points and missed five of his seven shots.

“Offensively, Christian might have taken a step back the last couple of games, but again, Christian’s going through that same thing (as Mathurin) where he explodes on the scene and the next thing you know, people are jumping to these massive conclusions on what their future looks like,” Lloyd said.

“And it’s a lot for a kid to take in, and so he’s kind of having to deal with maybe some of those external things that he has never had to deal with before. So there’s just a little bit of an adjustment period. Christian practiced really good yesterday. I thought he kind of looked back to the player that I know that he is, his balance was way better, his force was way better. And that’s something he’s got to learn how to value and recreate every single day.”

While Koloko’s offensive numbers have sagged, his defensive ones have not. He was a big part of Arizona holding Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn to 5-of-15 shooting, blocking four shots and altering plenty of others.

“I know I’m not always going to have a good game offensively, but I can’t let it affect my defense,” Koloko said. “That’s what I try to do every game, just play as hard as I can on the defensive end, and on the offensive end, but I know sometimes it’s not going to be perfect on both sides.

Defending the perimeter

Illinois was 16 of 36 from 3-point range against Arizona, making the most 3s against the Wildcats since Oregon went 16 of 25 in 2017. The prior eight opponents were only 27.8 percent from deep, but then again none of them had a force like Cockburn to deal with on the inside.

“We probably gave up a few more threes than I’d like to give up, but those threes didn’t all come off (guarding) him,” Lloyd said. “Some of them came off him. Others came (from) if you’re trying to pressure, if the team’s willing to try to beat your press and shoot a quick three, a lot of times you live with that because that gets the tempo going how we want to go. And they made a couple of those. They they had some good adjustments to some of our coverages, and they made the shots.”

Enter Northern Colorado, which takes 47.1 percent of its shots from beyond the arc, far more than any other opponent on Arizona’s schedule. The Bears shoot 37.5 percent from 3, which is top 50 in the country, and five of their top six players attempt at least 4.3 triples per game with three of them shooting 37 percent or better.

“They shoot a lot of threes because they have good 3-point shooters, and they put you in decision-making scenarios,” Lloyd said. “The 3-point line is always a point of emphasis for us defensively. We’re gonna come out and try to do a great job guarding the 3-point line. And hopefully we can. Teams that shoot and make a lot of threes, there’s they’re always going to have your attention.”

Using the bench

Though Arizona’s bench isn’t as deep as it was—Kim Aiken Jr. remains out due to personal reasons, with Lloyd calling the forward’s situation “literally day to day”—it’s still much deeper than Northern Colorado’s. The Bears only have one reserve averaging more than 8.3 minutes per game compared to the UA, which (not including Aiken) has three playing at least 13 per game.

Arizona hasn’t subbed as much since Aiken has been out, with the trio of Oumar Ballo, Justin Kier and Pelle Larrson only logging 39 total minutes at Illinois, but a lot more subbing could be in play against an opponent that doesn’t have that luxury.

That could mean a lot of run for Ballo, whose 121 minutes in nine games is almost as much as he had all last season (151) at Gonzaga.

Northern Colorado’s biggest player is 6-foot-9, 220-pound senior Kur Jongkuch, who averages 10 points and 9.9 rebounds but also has been in foul trouble in six of 11 games. Having to deal with both Koloko and Ballo could make for a long night for him.

“If you’re having to deal with C-Lo and then Oumar takes the baton from you ... they’re a little bit different, but both are a physical presence, and I think it’s a lot,” Lloyd said. “There’s an accumulation affect with those guys, and I think they kind of wear other teams down, whether it’s foul pressure or just banging with them the whole game, and it’s something that I love watching. And I love having guys like that on my team.”