On first glance, the Arizona men’s basketball team passed the eye test. They look the part – because of all their parts.
I liked what I saw at the annual Red-Blue Game … and, in truth, that wasn’t always the case. But the 2019-20 version of the Cats look good. What it all means in March is anyone’s guess. But my gut tells me this year’s Cats could make you forget the last two teams. This one will play with heart, or so it seems.
As for the chemistry – the key ingredient for any successful team – is still to be determined. Sophomore Devonaire Doutrive said as much, pointing out they’ve only been together in practice for a couple of days. Heck, earlier in the week, coach Sean Miller said chemistry is a slippery slope throughout the season given the dynamics of the day-to-day situations. What’s good in September may not be good in March.
So, that will be monitored too. But at least Arizona looked good Friday night in McKale Center. A plus was no one got hurt, save for senior Chase Jeter going didn’t play because of a groin injury.
What’s clear is Jeter, whatever his situation is throughout the season, will have help near the basket.
“Our frontline speaks for itself,” said Miller. “What I like about our practice environment is that, yes, we have quality depth and we have a lot of size. We’re not going to get spooked when we play that team or in that game when the other team possesses those same qualities.”
Miller pointed out it benefits his frontline players as well as his backcourt players, given they have plenty to look for near the basket. He called it the “gift of size” and “now it’s up to us to develop those guys.”
Zeke Nnaji looked good, save for his 0 for 3 night. He did have six rebounds but it’s clear he runs the court well and can defend near and far from the basket. He’s lanky and athletic.
“He’s a very important player,” Miller said.
Then there’s Stone Gettings, who might come off the bench but should have an impact because of his way around the game. The Cornell transfer has a strong basketball IQ – duh! – to go with a deft shot and basketball savvy.
“Having him out there at times changes the way you feel about our offense,” Miller said. “He can score from behind the (3-point line), he’s a clever passer and a good free-throw shooter.”
Then there was the interesting case of Christian Koloko, who may have had the best night of the bigs. He looked better than his “project” tag, hitting a couple of jumpers to go with his four baskets.
It all adds up to quality depth. Yes, it’s been said before only to see injuries and defections take their toll, but this year it looks like it could be the big plus Miller has need through the years. It’s young, but there.
“For a long time, we’ve had a really good practice environment, we’ve had depth, we’ve had players competing against each other every day,” Miller said. “A year ago, we didn’t have that. We just didn’t have the depth at certain places, maybe the talent, certainly the size. And you saw, the longer that our season went, the harder it was for us. We did the best we could in practice, but we didn’t have those big bodies competing against each other.
“For example, if Chase wasn’t able to play in last year’s Red-Blue Game, the game would have really looked funny. I mean, we would have run out of people almost. But this year, he didn’t play, and we had four or five guys in there competing. So, it’s up to us to use that as our advantage, like where does that show up rebounding margin, being able to play through fouls, injuries, being harder to score against around the basket. Maybe being a team that can get second shots more easily.”
Koloko could very much help if his rise continues.
“We knew he had a great year last year at Sierra Canyon and he developed a lot,” Miller said. “I just think that what he came from that winning environment, with what he learned there, and (even though) he hasn’t played basketball for very long, he’s further along in his development than maybe we thought he was.
“Everything’s on the table for us (as far as) who’s going to play. He’s still a work in progress offensively, but he can make plays, he can catch the ball. He’s pretty good free-throw shooter. And mostly, I love his work ethic. He works at the game, even though he’s seven feet tall. So, we’re really thrilled to have him.”
Nico Mannion is no project. He has a special gait and way about him. And although he didn’t shoot the ball well on Friday, he did move with the ball well.
“You know, I’m going to be his biggest fan here early on because it’s just almost unfair, the high expectations that are placed on him,” Miller said. “I mean, he’s a really good player, and he’s only going to get better. But he’s not going to be able to do it alone. He’s going to have his bumps in the road. He’s seeing things for the first time.
“Tonight, was his first-ever moment in McKale. He’s going to be that much better moving ahead, you’re going to see Nico play against the zone for the first time. He’s going to have to guard different styles. So that’s why you go to college and I have no doubt that, like, really all of our freshmen, they’ll continue to develop and grow. But we’re counting on Nico. But … he’s going to miss a few shots. He’s not going to be perfect every night. But he’s going to get there. There’s no doubt about it.”
Josh Green will get there, too. His athletic talent is very apparent, but so is his raw abilities He has a lot to learn but he has so much to work with. It’s his defense that will be his biggest asset. Miller compared Green to the talented and athletic Nick Johnson.
“That’s where his talent lies immediately,” Miller said. “There are things about Josh’s game that he’ll work on and improve, but right out of the gates where he’s blessed is his athleticism and his physicality. It would be great for him to embrace that role.
“When Nick really embraced that defensive role, that’s when everything happened, good for both him and the team. I think Josh can have a lot to do with that.”