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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts ASU in home finale

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-asu-sun-devils-preview-seniors-azuolas-tubelis-pac12-2023 Alex Gould / USA TODAY NETWORK

When last we saw Arizona, it was completing a double-digit home win over Colorado in which it dug itself out of an early 12-point hole and then cruised the rest of the way. Coach Tommy Lloyd wasn’t impressed with the performance—“we didn’t play great tonight by any stretch,” he said afterward—but seemed hopeful that an extended break before the next game was just what the Wildcats needed to help get back on track.

The team collectively took a few days off before returning to practice earlier this week in preparation for Saturday’s clash against ASU at McKale Center, the final home game this season.

“It’s been good for everybody,” Lloyd said Thursday of what he’s called Arizona’s All-Star break. “Ultimately, Saturday is gonna tell us. That’s gonna be the indicator of how we come out and play, but I think it was a much needed break, for coaches and players. We all took a couple days off. We got to get better. I mean, it’s that time of the year, you got to fight to get better. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Here’s what to watch for when the seventh-ranked Wildcats (24-4, 14-3 Pac-12) take on the Sun Devils (19-9, 10-7):

Getting Zu back on track

It’s a 2-man race for Pac-12 Player of the Year, though of late UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. may have surpassed Azuolas Tubelis for the award thanks to four straight 20-point performances. That’s coincided with Tubelis’ worst stretch of the season, which has been as much his own doing as what opposing teams are throwing at him.

Tubelis has averaged 19.7 minutes over the past three games, his least amount of action in a 3-game stretch since the end of last season when he looked out of his league against TCU and Houston in the NCAA Tournament and was almost a liability on the court.

That’s not the case this time around. Rather, Tubelis has struggled to stay in games due to foul trouble, and while some of the calls may have seemed unfair (cough, Stanford, cough) there have been just as many that Lloyd calls “self-inflicted wounds” which have contributed to the 6-foot-11 junior playing eight or fewer first-half minutes each of the last three games.

“You gotta be smart and understand your value to the team,” Lloyd said. “You don’t want to get fouls in frustration. You might get some effort fouls here and there, but as long as you take away the fouls of frustration, where you’re frustrated and you maybe reach or chase somebody down or kick a ball on the stands, whatever it may be.”

Tubelis had 13 points against Colorado but a plus/minus of -10, his second-worst of the season (it was minus-22 in the loss at Utah on Dec. 1) and second negative number in the last three games.

“Zu’s had an amazing year; the last couple games maybe haven’t been as great, but I think that’s okay,” Lloyd said. “I think, over the course of a season, you’re gonna have some ups and downs, and they’re both important. How you bounce back from some of the downs is as important as continuing to play well. I think he’s gonna have a real strong finish to the season. And I think he’s deserving of all the recognition he’s getting, but I think more importantly, he knows he’s got to come out and perform on a nightly basis.”

More small ball sampling?

Tubelis’ recent struggles have prompted Arizona to go with a 5-guard lineup on a few stretches, and the results so far have been good. Could that become a more common thing, not just when it felt like a necessity?

Lloyd said the 5-guard approach was voluntary, not forced, as he could have chosen to employ freshmen Henri Veesaar or Dylan Anderson when his starting bigs both needed to sit. He did that at times against Utah, but the game was already in hand, while against Stanford and Colorado he opted for a lineup that had Pelle Larsson at the 5 and Cedric Henderson Jr. at the 4.

“Obviously I think it’s a lineup that can help us win games,” Lloyd said. “Are we going to see a steady diet and make it a mainstay? I don’t know. But maybe that’s what makes it more effective, when it’s kind of a little bit of a change-up.”

ASU, with its quickness on defense and overall undersized rotation, might be a good opponent to test the super small quintet against. Then again, Tubelis and Oumar Ballo did combine for 33, 21 rebounds and drew 11 of the Sun Devils’ 22 fouls in the previous meeting in Tempe.

“We’re missing out on two All-Americans,” guard Courtney Ramey said. “I mean, that’s tough, but our guards are great, too. We lose something but we gain something, too.”

How the Devils stack up

When Arizona won 69-60 in Tempe on Dec. 31, ASU was 11-2 and looked like an NCAA Tournament team. The Sun Devils won their next four after that but then dropped four straight and appear on only two of 114 projections aggregated by

Lloyd doesn’t see much different about ASU now compared to the one that erased a 17-point halftime deficit two months ago.

“They’re extremely aggressive at both ends of the floor,” he said. “They have players that can create, take and make their own shots. As a coach you’re always a little bit fearful of that, because you could have the best scouting report in the business, but if guys can go create their own shots and consistently make them that’s really tough to play against.

“They’re a very active aggressive defensive team that has really good defensive numbers, and then offensively, they play with good pace and they move the ball and and they’re aggressive. They’re good overall defensively, and they they do a great job, being aggressive in the gaps. They force you to play in tight spaces. You got to be mindful of that when you play against them so you don’t turn the ball over.”

That win in Tempe was the start of an 8-game stretch where Arizona scored 70 or fewer six times and had six of its seven worst adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. The last seven games, though, the Wildcats have averaged 85.7 points and shot at least 45.9 percent every time.

Senior Day in the portal era

Arizona will honor its four seniors—Henderson, Ramey and walk-ons Matthew Lang and Jordan Mains—during a pregame ceremony, one that will include parents on the court, Lloyd saying nice things about each player and them getting a framed jersey.

It will be the second such senior celebration for three of them. Henderson did one last year at Campbell, same for Ramey at Texas and Lang at Gonzaga, making Mains as the only one who began his career at Arizona … and he has another year of eligibility and could end up going through this again in 2024.

So it goes in the era of the NCAA transfer portal.

“I think this year my mind is just like this is another game,” Ramey said. “It’s good that my family will be here, having them support me, but my mind is just like alright, we got to continue to get better.”

Arizona is 9-1 since Henderson moved back into the starting lineup, and with each game he and Ramey have looked more and more comfortable in the overall system. How transfers are going to fit with a new team is always a crapshoot, as anyone who watched some of Sean Miller’s teams could attest to, but the UA looks like it has done good by the portal under Lloyd.

“Courtney and Ced have been tremendous additions to our program,” Lloyd said. “And to be honest with you, I don’t know if we could have done better in the transfer portal than those two.”

Henderson said fit was “the most important thing” he was looking for when entering the portal.

“You can’t just go anywhere and just decide to play, no matter how good you are,” Henderson said. “There’s a lot of players that are really, really good and there are programs that just don’t fit them and they end up playing bad.”