Arizona spent Thanksgiving with family and friends who accompanied the team to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. And there were a few extra items cluttering the dinner table, compliments of the Wildcats winning the tournament and Oumar Ballo being named Most Valuable Player.
The wins over Cincinnati, No. 17 San Diego State and No. 10 Creighton will surely lead to Arizona rising from No. 14 in the latest Associated Press poll, while also bringing the team a boatload of national attention.
“To play three games in three days against three really good teams with very distinct styles and to come out of it on top the way we did, it says a lot about this group,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said afterward.
Those games also helped better define what the 2022-23 Wildcats can be, and moved them up to No. 8 in KenPom’s rankings. Here’s what we learned about Arizona via its Maui title:
Best big men in the country?
Think last year’s 1-2 frontcourt duo of Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis was imposing? The current one might be even better.
Tubelis started the tourney with a 30-piece against Cincinnati, and might have replicated that had he not got into foul trouble the other two games. Then Ballo came out with his own 30-spot in the title game, a career high along with a career-best 13 rebounds.
The long-awaited Oumar Ballo breakout is upon us, and it is glorious. That is him treating one of the best centers in the country, Ryan Kalkbrenner, like he is not even there.— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) November 24, 2022
Best part of this play was the way Ballo SPRINTED the floor to make sure he could establish position pic.twitter.com/GNvPKmTJnv
Ballo was 27 of 34 from the field, scoring 63 points and pulling down 32 rebounds, while Tubelis still managed to score 58 on 24-of-36 shooting with 25 boards. All told, that duo made 51 of 70 shots in Maui and combined for 44.9 percent of Arizona’s points.
“If you have two best bigs in the country, then you got to give them the ball, if you play smart,” point guard Kerr Kriisa said. “If you’re trying to win, then you give them the ball, and you let them do their work.”
For the year Ballo and Tubelis are averaging 38.3 points and 18 rebounds and shooting 74.2 percent.
Better late than never
Arizona’s first three games were such walkovers that it was difficult to imagine how having Courtney Ramey in the mix would have changed this. But against the tougher competition in Maui his presence was huge, and may have been the difference between a loss or two and the title.
The Texas transfer guard made quite a UA debut, scoring 48 points in Maui and hitting 10 of 16 3s while also playing aggressive perimeter defense. He hadn’t scored 48 in a 3-game span since February 2021 when he had 49 over three contests including a career-high 28.
Arizona has had its fair share of impact transfers over the years, but not has made this big a splash right away. James Akinjo’s 43 points in his first three games with the Wildcats in 2020-21 was previously the most by a transfer in at least 25 years.
Kerr Kriisa’s offensive aggressiveness
One of five players in Division I last season with 150 assists and 80 3-pointers, and the first UA player to do so since Jason Gardner in 2001-02, Kriisa has established himself as a great distributor and someone who can light it up from outside. That’s continued this month, with 18 triples and 45 dimes in the first six games.
But we saw something extra from Kriisa in Maui: the willingness to go inside the arc, and not just to dish to a teammate.
Kriisa took 17 2-point shots in Maui, making 10, including a career high-tying five twos in the title game against Creighton (on 10 attempts). He only attempted 49 twos in 33 games a year ago, as opposed to 238 3s, and shot below 35 percent in both areas.
It’s early, but Kriisa is shooting better than 50 percent from 2 and 3 and has also gone 18 of 20 from the line. The last Wildcat with a 50/50/90 season: Salim Stoudamire in 2004-05.
Still seeking a balance of the bad stuff
Arizona averaged 13.3 turnovers in Maui, down significantly from the 20.7 it averaged prior to the tourney. And after having 42 steals against them in the three games at McKale, the Wildcats’ Maui opponents combined for 24 swipes.
A 21.7 percent turnover rate is still high, but Lloyd has said the giveaways are going to come with the pace that Arizona plays at. He doesn’t want to play tentative with the ball and cause his team to slow down and be less explosive on offense.
A careful balance is also needed with amping up the defensive intensity but doing so without fouling. That was a problem for Arizona in Maui, where foul trouble tried its best to throw a wrench into the title run.
The Wildcats had seven players log four or more fouls in a game in the tourney, with Tubelis and Pelle Larsson getting to that number twice. That aggressive approach on defense paid off against San Diego State, holding it to 38.1 percent shooting, and for much of the win over Creighton the Blue Jays couldn’t get good shots because of how much Arizona blanketed their scorers.
Closing time concerns
Arizona led Cincinnati by 18 with 1:34 to go before allowing 10 straight garbage points down the stretch, a late drought that really only mattered to those who took the Wildcats minus-9.5. Similar late runs by the opponents caused the UA not to cover against Southern and Utah Tech, but like with Cincinnati the outcomes were never in doubt.
But the UA made the win over Creighton a lot closer than it needed to be, going from up nine with 2:21 left to having to foul up three in the final seconds. Arizona had similar lulls to end the first halves against Cincinnati and San Diego State, getting outscored 6-0 by the Bearcats and 10-2 by the Aztecs to lead by 10 and 4 instead of 16 and 12, respectively.
Ironically, Arizona avoided that end-of-first-half scenario against Creighton, outscoring the Blue Jays 7-2 down the stretch.