The easy games are over, for now at least. After three walkover victories at home, Arizona is about to see a major uptick in competition when it plays in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii.
The 14th-ranked Wildcats (3-0) open against Cincinnati (3-1) on Monday night but could face ranked opponents on Tuesday and Wednesday depending on how the bracket plays out.
Here’s what to watch for from Maui:
Arizona played the first three games without one of its projected starters, guard Courtney Ramey, who was suspended by the NCAA for playing in an NBA Draft showcase in April. The Texas transfer was expected to start at the 2, a spot that Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has held down to this point.
UA coach Tommy Lloyd said last week that Ramey would likely slide into the starting lineup, and in looking ahead to Maui he said he had to keep reminding himself of what the Wildcats were about to the mix.
“We’re adding a really good player to the mix who is an efficient ball handler, efficient shooter, is tough, proven, plays his butt off on defense,” Lloyd said. “As a coach it feels great. Ithink it lifts everybody up.
Lloyd said Ramey has gone back and forth between Arizona’s first and second unit in practice, the latter Ramey’s idea while Lloyd kept pulling him up to the first to show he belonged with the starters.
As for what kind of production they can expect from him in his first game?
“I’m not expecting him to hit the ground running and be perfect in his first run this season, but I’m also banking on the fact that this is a kid that loves basketball and has played a lot of it,” Lloyd said. “Has a lot of experience, and I imagine he’ll be ready to rise to the occasion.”
Tougher and tougher opponents
Cincinnati, which is coming off a 64-51 loss at Northern Kentucky before heading to Maui, is ranked No. 63 by KenPom.com. That’s the second lowest-rated team in the field behind winless Louisville (No. 124).
Everyone else, including No. 12 Arizona, is a top-30 KenPom team.
The Wildcats’ second opponent will be either No. 17 San Diego State or No. 28 Ohio State, and then Wednesday they’ll face one from the lot of No. 14 Arkansas, No. 23 Creighton, No. 25 Texas Tech or Louisville.
Arizona’s first three foes are ranked 224th or lower.
Because of how the Pac-12 (other than the UA) has struggled so far, this tourney means even more for schedule strength. As of now, the Wildcats’ only other Top 30 KenPom matchups are Dec. 10 vs. No. 8 Indiana (in Las Vegas), Dec. 17 vs. No. 6 Tennessee and the home-and-home with No. 10 UCLA. Oregon, at No. 33, is the only other Top 50 opponent on the schedule.
Arizona is averaging 105.3 points per game, tops in Division I, and also leads the country in field goal percentage (63.2), 2-point percentage (72.8) and both free throws made (27.3) and attempted (36) per game. And that’s in spite of turning it over 62 times in three games, with at least 19 each time.
“Obviously we need to reel them in and be able to get that number closer to 12,” Lloyd said. “It seems like they’re happening in a number of areas and with a number of individuals.”
Azuolas Tubelis has the most turnovers on the team, with 11, but he also has the highest usage rate (27.8 percent).
There’s also the fact that Arizona’s style of play opens itself up to turnovers, and Lloyd is fine with that for the most part.
“What I don’t want to do is I don’t want to be conservative and make our players tentative,” he said. “We’re going for it and hopefully we’ll start to see some results and the turnovers will reduce and the the efficiency will go up even more.”
That’s hard to imagine. Arizona has scored on 145 of 181 possessions that haven’t ended in a turnover.
Lloyd called the Maui Invitational the “premium preseason tournament,” and he should know. This will be his sixth time coaching in the event, the first five with Gonzaga. He went 13-4 with the Bulldogs as an assistant, winning the tourney in 2009 and 2018, beating Arizona in the semifinals en route to that last title.
Arizona went 1-2 against that 2018 field, beating Iowa but then losing to ranked Gonzaga and Auburn teams that would reach the Elite Eight and Final Four, respectively, that season.
The Wildcats are making their ninth appearance in Maui, going 15-8 with titles in 2000 and 2014.
Ramey is the only UA player to participate in the Maui Invitational, winning the title with Texas in 2020, but that event was held in Asheville, N.C. due to COVID restrictions in Hawaii.