The Arizona Wildcats are back home for the first time in two weeks when they host ASU on Saturday afternoon, their first game since losing by 16 at UCLA to fall out of first place in the Pac-12.
Third-ranked Arizona (16-2, 6-1) is coming off a swing through California that saw it play three games in five days, along the way seeing one of its best players suffer an ankle injury. ASU (6-11, 2-5) is playing its third straight road game and has lost five of six.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Sun Devils meet at McKale Center:
‘The next one’s going in’
Just as he did after the UCLA loss, Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said Friday he has no concerns about Kerr Kriisa’s 0-for-12 performance on Tuesday being more than just an off night.
“Kerr’s a bounce back type of guy,” Lloyd said. “He had a tough night shooting and I’m sure UCLA had something to do with that. It’s a blip on the radar in my mind.”
But Kriisa, who was 0 for 9 from 3-point range, is now shooting just 37 percent for the season, lowest among the UA’s rotation players. In Pac-12 play he’s shooting 31.5 percent, and since scoring a career-high 21 against Washington on Jan. 3 he’s made only 21.9 percent of his shots and 19.2 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Asked if he thought about telling Kriisa to stop shooting against UCLA, Lloyd pointed to how he was 6 of 10 in the second half at Illinois (after going 1 for 6 in the first half) and followed up an 0 for 4 start at Tennessee by making 3 of 6 3s in the second half.
“Kerr has that ability, and I’m going to trust that ability and I’ve seen him do it and I believe in him,” Lloyd said. “With him I always feel like the next one’s going in. Kerr has a lot of belief in himself. He’s a proven shooter, and the next one’s going in.”
How much (or at all) does Tubelis play?
Azuolas Tubelis returned to action against UCLA, playing 15 minutes off the bench after missing the Cal game two days earlier while nursing a sprained left ankle suffered early at Stanford. He had eight points, six rebounds and two assists but also four fouls and clearly did not look 100 percent.
“I’m not putting too much into what he did or didn’t do because I think he was probably not his full self,” said Lloyd, who said Tubelis has not practiced since the injury. “I admire him for trying to give it a go Tuesday.”
After Saturday the Wildcats have four more days off before the rematch against UCLA, so it’s entirely possible Tubelis could sit out the ASU game or have a limited role like he did in the last game.
“We’re just trying to get it better, and we’re trying to play the long game a little bit more than the short term game, but we’ll see where he’s at,” Lloyd said. “It’s just about trying to win the next game, and whether he goes or doesn’t go tomorrow, I mean, the mission is still gonna be the same.”
A ‘scrappy’ ASU team
The Sun Devils are last in the Pac-12 in most offensive categories, averaging only 57.3 points in conference games. Only four of their 10 primary players are shooting better than 40 percent.
But Lloyd said he expects a challenge from ASU because of its aggressiveness, both on offense and defense, which combined with Arizona still trying to recover from the road trip could make for an ugly game.
“I think the main thing is just getting the win,” he said. “I don’t know if you’re going to have a clean, well, crisp-played game against an aggressive team like Arizona State. At this time of the year, it’s about winning. And of course, you want to win and ... sometimes it feels a little better to play well. But that’s not the end all, be all. The end all, be all is just finding a way to come out on top, in a game like Saturday.”
ASU has wins at Oregon and Creighton, which Lloyd said shows the team’s potential. He also believes the Sun Devils’ defense is their strength, and their willingness to take risks on that end could cause the UA problems considering its penchant for turning the ball over.
“Their offensive numbers might not be great overall but their defensive numbers are really good,” he said. “They’re a scrappy group, and we expect them to play really well here.”
More ball for Bal?
Freshman wing Adama Bal played 15 total minutes in the wins at Stanford and Cal, entering in the first half in both games for his first non-garbage time action of his career. That was partly due to Tubelis’ absence, but also the result of the 6-foot-6 Frenchman coming to terms with his limited role this season.
“I think he’s been on an uptick in practice,” Lloyd said of Bal, who had five points in nine minutes against Cal. “He’s kind of gone through the normal ebbs and flows for a young freshmen. No matter how you slice it and dice it, no matter how honest you are with them that they’re probably not getting as much playing time, and it’s a development year, it’s still hard on them emotionally. And so he struggled early at times, and now he’s kind of bouncing back, and I think he’s a good player.”
Lloyd said he wishes he had more opportunities for Bal (and fellow freshman Shane Nowell) but also doesn’t want to risk ruining him before he’s fully ready to contribute.
“To be honest with you, I want to protect him a little bit, because I think he’s got a real chance to be something special,” Lloyd said. “It’s a little bit like keeping that talented pitcher in the Double-A for a little bit. Making sure he’s Major League ready when he gets Major League innings.”