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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball opens 2022-23 season vs. Nicholls

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-nicholls-colonels-preview-cedric-henderson-kriisa-boswell-ramey Arizona Athletics

The second year of the Tommy Lloyd era officially begins Monday night when Arizona hosts Nicholls at McKale Center.

The Wildcats begin the 2022-23 season ranked 17th in the Associated Press Top 25 and picked to finish second in the Pac-12, this after finishing second in the final AP poll and winning both the regular-season and conference title en route to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Sweet 16 bid.

But gone from that squad are four of the top eight contributors, including three starters who are all now on NBA rosters. The reinforcements are a mix of veteran transfers and unproven newcomers, which could make for some early growing pains.

That was evident in last week’s 91-61 exhibition win over Division II Western Oregon, a game in which Arizona showed a lot of good things but also showed plenty of flaws.

“Obviously we had some things we had to address from the exhibition, which is always the case, and kind of try to clean up some of our stuff,” Lloyd said Sunday. “To be honest with you, we’re still trying to put our entire packages in. That will happen probably over the course of the next month and even continue throughout the season.”

Here’s what to watch for in Arizona’s first regular-season game:

Ramey’s replacement

Lloyd said he’ll likely start Cedric Henderson Jr. at the 2 guard in place of Courtney Ramey, who has to sit out the first three games because of an NCAA suspension for playing in the Portsmouth Invitational in April before withdrawing from the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-6 wing joined the Wildcats in June after playing his first three seasons at Campbell, a member of the Big South Conference that played its home games in the 3,095-seat Pope Convocation Center. The biggest arena in that league holds 5,700, roughly 40 percent the capacity of McKale Center.

Henderson said he enjoyed the atmosphere during the exhibition, but knows it can only get better.

“I can’t wait to actually play against a bigger team, I want to see what that feels like to actually have them scream the whole time,” he said.

Henderson played against Duke last season, but otherwise most of his career has been against mid- and low-major competition. Arizona’s first three foes fall in that category before it heads to the Maui Invitational, giving Henderson a few games to get accustomed to the loftier expectations.

“All in all, I’ve been really happy with Cedric, been really happy with the progress he’s made, and we’re lucky to have him,” Lloyd said. “I’m expecting him to play well.”

The other possible replacement for Ramey was sophomore Adama Bal, who had 15 points against Western Oregon after scoring 34 all of last season.

“I like Adama no matter where he plays,” Lloyd said. “I haven’t really thought too much about what exactly the minutes are gonna look like. That’ll play out over the course of the game.”

Lloyd said fans shouldn’t “read too much” into how much everyone plays in the first game, particularly when it comes to Arizona’s four freshmen, who combined for 11 points in 38 minutes of action.

“It’s the first game, so like nothing’s going to be set in stone,” Lloyd said, noting that if he were a UA fan he would “understand that things will evolve over the course of time.”

An abnormal opening opponent

The Nicholls Colonels are ranked 247th out of 363 Division I teams, per, but that doesn’t really tell the story. They’re two-time Southland Conference regular-season champs, going 21-12 last season and returns three players who made the preseason all-conference team. They’ve also added transfers from Indiana State, UAB and UTRGV who fit the style of fifth-year coach Austin Claunch, who at 32 is second-youngest head coach in the country.

“This isn’t probably a normal opener,” Lloyd said. “They play a really unique style. The coach is young, he’s aggressive, and it’s impressive what he’s been able to do in his short tenure there. They have a unique style, which is not always ideal to play the first game of the year, but it’s going to be great for us to play against because you’re going to have to answer the bell. If you don’t answer the bell, you’re going to be in a dogfight.”

Lloyd said Nicholls is heavy on pressuring passes, trying to keep teams from running their offense smoothly. This leads to a lot of live-ball turnovers—it averaged 8.3 steals per game in 2021-22, forcing one on 7.8 percent of possessions—which could be trouble for a UA team that likes to play fast and is susceptible to giving it away.

“This is a heck of a (first) game for freshmen,” Lloyd said. “You’re stepping in (against) a team that’s going to be a high-pressure, ball-pressure denial type thing. Which, traditionally, creates a lot of problems for an offense and can lead to a lot of turnovers. We’ll have to see how they handle it. Hopefully the handle it well, and probably depending on how they handle it will depend on how much they play.”

Last season, with a more experienced lineup, Arizona turned it over 17.4 percent of the time and all four of its losses saw it commit at least 14 turnovers.

Arizona’s aggressiveness

The Wildcats forced 24 turnovers in the exhibition, a number Lloyd said isn’t sustainable. But he’s still hoping his players be the aggressors on defense, just in a more regimented manner.

Junior forward Azuolas Tubelis agrees. He said he woke up the morning after the preseason game and saw on film how often he was trying to steal the ball.

“Yeah, I can’t do that,” he said. “I know personally, me, I know what I did wrong. We were more aggressive, maybe too much aggressive. I just felt so excited, so maybe I thought that every ball I (could) steal it, fans will go crazy. Yeah, I need to fix that.”

Boswell’s buildup and Kerr’s course of action

Boswell logged 10 minutes against Western Oregon, doing so only a week after getting fully cleared for practice following June foot surgery. Lloyd said he expects to play the 4-star point guard, who graduated early in order to join Arizona over the summer.

“A heck of a game for a 17-year old—who should be a senior in high school—point guard to step into,” Lloyd said. “But he’s got poise and, and hopefully he’ll be prepared and it’ll be a great welcome to him to high-level college basketball.

Boswell’s first-half action came in relief of starting point guard Kerr Kriisa, while the pair played together in the second half. Both scenarios are likely in the opener.

As for Kriisa, this first game should be a lot different for him than the exhibition, when he went scoreless in 25 minutes but also only took three shots, recording four assists and three rebounds (as well as three turnovers). Lloyd said afterward the Kriisa might have been taking a “wait and see” approach to the exhibition, allowing others to get acclimated.

With the real games starting, though, that has to stop.

“He and I’ve talked about that a little bit; I don’t know if Kerr really needs to feel anything out,” Lloyd said. “I think he needs to go get it, so that’s been the message. You go get it, you play how you play, and then the team will react accordingly. I don’t think he needs to bend over backwards to sacrifice to make sure other guys are getting up to speed. When Lerr is clicking at a high level, he’s a high-level player. And I’d rather have him play at that level, then everybody else can catch up with him.”