On an afternoon that saw several new faces in a new place, it was two pseudo newbies who have been here all along that stole the show.
Arizona’s James Akinjo and Jordan Brown aren’t exactly wet behind the ears, but they are new to playing for Arizona, despite siting out last year as transfers.
The two proved quite the one-two punch on Friday afternoon in McKale Center, where there were about 200 fans and likely as many cardboard character fans.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said the atmosphere was kind of strange, and well, it’s likely he felt a little of the same for the game.
“We obviously have a long, long way to go,” Miller said after UA’s 74-55 win over Grambling State.
Arizona can thank Akinjo and Brown for UA’s 19-point win. In fact, 19 was the key number. Akinjo and Brown each finished with 19 points to lead Arizona in its return to basketball in 2020.
Brown added 15 rebounds and looked like he never missed a beat after transferring from Nevada nearly 18 months ago.
Brown was so eager to get on the court he knew the exact number of days since his last game – 614.
“I’m really happy to be back out there,” Brown said.
Miller was more than happy to have his lanky yet athletic body out there.
“I thought Jordan Brown was outstanding,” Miller said. “I don’t really care who we play or where the game is played, if you can get 19 points and 15 rebounds, including 13 defensive rebounds in 32 minutes, that’s one heck of an effort. I commend Jordan because he’s one of our team’s hardest workers. He’s worked very, very hard over the last year and a half and it really showed today. I thought he was our team’s overall best player.”
If he was 1A then Akinjo was 1B. It’s appropriate they are roommates.
Akinjo said Brown is “one of the best bigs in the Pac-12.”
If all goes well for Arizona – and it’s way too early to gauge – Akinjo could be one of the best guards in the league too.
The transfer from Georgetown was key in getting in the lane and finding open spots for nice jumpers.
“James also has an inner confidence that our team needs,” Miller said. “Again, I thought he had some really great moments.”
In fact, Miller was spot on in his comparison to former Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, who as a guard could get to the basket with aggressiveness and yet pull up for a jumper to keep the opponent off balance. And, of course, he has that “inner confidence” Lyons always showed.
Akinjo said he watched Lyons at Xavier and watched him while he was at Arizona and agrees with the comparison.
“But I do some things different than he,” Akinjo said. “His game is a little different than mine but in terms of personality and aggressiveness I think that’s a fair comparison.”
One area that may be better is Akinjo’s outside game. He appears to be a better shooter, although he was just 6 for 14 from the floor, but 4 for 9 from beyond the 3-point line.
“I shot subpar,” he said. “My teammates made it easy for me to get open shots, but it’s my first game back. I just have to calm down and make those shots.”
Miller said he didn’t want to play Akinjo as much as he did – 38 minutes – but had to given Jemarl Baker was in foul trouble and freshman guard Kerr Kriisa is not with the team right now. He’s headed to Estonia to play for his national team, given he has not been declared eligible by the NCAA to play for Arizona. Had he been cleared, UA would not have allowed him to head back to play for his national team. It’s not clear when Kerr will return to UA, but Miller said he’s optimistic he will.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t have the NCAA’s phone number,” Miller said, referring to Kriisa’s situation. “They don’t tell me what they’re going to do two weeks from now as it applies to amateurism and eligibility.
“We have our fingers crossed that at some point he can join us, like four or five other players from Europe that came here the same way he did.”
Arizona could be getting more depth soon. Senior forward Ira Lee, out with a concussion for at least three weeks, is no long showing symptoms and is expected back at practice soon.
“I don’t have the answer of when he’ll be able to play in games simply because I don’t know how he’ll respond to being back out on the court,” Miller said. “We missed him tonight. One of the reasons we missed him is, you can’t have enough guys that have played in games before. He’s very, very physical, he gives us depth inside. Bringing somebody in who’s 22 years old, who’s been through these things, could have been beneficial to our team.”
As for the atmosphere being strange and the use of masks, Miller said,
“It feels very, very strange. You don’t know until you go through it but being somebody who’s watched these types of events only on TV, it doesn’t feel as different for the viewer at home. But for the participants, for the players, the coaches, the officials, it’s much different. Surreal, really.
“The mask is what it is. Sometimes you can’t breathe when you have it. It’s terrible but it’s what we’re all required to do, and I thought I did a pretty good job of keeping that on tonight. We’ll see.”