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Kerr Kriisa excited about Arizona’s future after missing most of freshman season

Simon Asher / Arizona Athletics

Kerr Kriisa had a breakout performance in Saturday’s loss to Oregon, what was just his fourth game in a Wildcat uniform. The freshman posted a career-high 12 points thanks to four spot-up 3s and dished out five assists, driving and kicking to find open teammates.

The Estonian was a team-best +17, looking like the lead guard Arizona fans thought they were getting when Kriisa committed to the Wildcats last spring.

The truth is, he is nowhere close to reaching his ceiling as a player.

“I’m really far from my game shape, for sure,” said Kriisa, who turned 20 in January. “It’s still game by game I get better and more confident.”

Kriisa is still finding his groove after the NCAA suspended him for the first 17 games because of some eligibility concerns. That time away from the court was difficult for him. It robbed him of valuable game experience and took a toll on his mental health as he got used to life in Arizona, thousands of miles away from home.

“Because you practice, you work hard every day, you’re just like everybody else, and then when the game day comes, then you just have to hype everybody up and be on the bench for them and can’t step myself on the court,” Kriisa said. “So it was mentally a really tough challenge for me, but I don’t really look back anymore. Because the time has come when I can play.”

It only took three games for Kriisa to earn a spot in Arizona’s starting lineup. Head coach Sean Miller gave him the nod vs. Oregon State on Thursday.

Kriisa isn’t just a solid shooter and ballhandler. He slides his feet well on defense and makes hustle plays, always willing to dive for a loose ball or draw a charge.

It fires him and his teammates up. Miller has compared Kriisa’s ferocity to former UA fan favorite T.J. McConnell.

“That’s the way I play,” Kriisa said. “I’ve been playing like this all my life. And if it’s contagious, I mean, it’s good. I like that my team is really energized.”

Kriisa has especially strong chemistry with Lithuanian freshman Azuolas Tubelis. They have known each other since they were teenagers. They competed against each other for their respective national teams, as well as at various camps in Europe.

Now they are on the same team and their friendship shows on the court. Against Oregon, Kriisa drove the lane and spotted a cutting Tubelis darting down the baseline. Kriisa dumped a pass to the big man who slammed it home with authority.

It was one of four times Kriisa and Tubelis connected for a bucket.

“We know each other for a long we feel each other good,” Tubelis said. “He sees me, I see him.”

Tubelis is a rising star in his own right. He had 20 points, seven rebounds and buried a trio of 3s against Oregon. It was the fourth time he has scored in double figures in his last five games.

Color commentator Bill Walton was so impressed that he called Tubelis and Kriisa the “Baltic Ballers.”

“Zu is a really good friend and he’s an even better player,” Kriisa said. “And I also agree that our connection is really good. He sees the floor. He has really good IQ. He can pass the ball for a big man really good. And he’s a tough player.”

While Kriisa was disappointed by the loss to Oregon, he is excited to see how he gels with Tubelis and the rest of his teammates moving forward. For the first time in a long time, the Wildcats could return their entire starting lineup next season.

“I really like the way we play,” Kriisa said. “I really like our offense. I like our defense. And considering we don’t have two really good players who are injured, I believe we can make really good damage next year. So I’m really excited for upcoming years and to finish this year strong.”