Here are some things to watch for.
After a slow start, things are about to get fast and furious
Due to the COVID conditions within other programs, the Wildcats have already cancelled three games this season, leaving Saturday’s tilt vs. Eastern Washington, which was originally supposed to be against Northern Colorado, as just their second of the year.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said you can tell his players love the game because of how hard and willingly they practice. Thursday’s session, however, was difficult.
“Because for the first time our team is able to watch a lot of other college basketball on television and you look and say, ‘Man it’s their second game. That’s their fourth game. That’s their fifth game.’ We’ve only played one,” Miller said. “So for us it’s controlling the things we can control.”
But that’s why this season has been so frustrating. The Wildcats have controlled the things they need to control—namely, avoiding coronavirus cases—but it hasn’t paid off yet.
“We’re upset by that part, but Coach tells us that we’re still gonna play the same amount of non-conference games as everybody else,” senior guard Terrell Brown said.
And it’s going to happen fast.
The Wildcats play four games in eight days starting Saturday. That’s both exciting and concerning.
“Although all of them are here in Tucson and McKale (Center), when you’ve only played one and now you’re gonna play four games in eight days, that’s a whole different mindset as well,” Miller said. “And I think from our preparation perspective, who we are as we approach tomorrow’s game against Eastern Washington, not a lot is going to change on our end because we’re not going to have the practice time in between games to tweak things or change. So we hopefully are going to be healthy and I know we have a team that’s ready to play, and I’m hoping we can build on our performance against Grambling.”
A dangerous Eastern Washington team
Eastern Washington was a late add to Arizona’s schedule, but don’t take them lightly. The Eagles won the Big Sky last year and were picked to repeat this year.
EWU is coming off a 23-8 season in which it finished a respectable 124th in KenPom’s ratings—better than Pac-12 teams like Cal and Washington State, who the Eagles almost beat in Pullman last week.
EWU returns 10 players from last season’s squad, including all-conference wing Jacob Davidson, sharpshooting point guard Jack Perry and all-conference forward Kim Aiken Jr.
“He’s gonna force our frontcourt players to guard a 3-point shooter, a driver, a true perimeter player,” Miller said of Aiken, who averaged 13.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game least season. “Jack Perry…he’s not a big scorer, but I don’t know we’ll face a more lethal 3-point shooter than he is.”
The Eagles shot the 3 with above average efficiency last season (34.4%) and ranked 28th in the country in 3-point attempts per game, partly because they played at the 18th-fastest pace in the country. Miller likened them to Arizona State and the UCLA team from a few years ago that featured T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball.
“Eastern Washington plays at a breakneck pace, shooting 3-point shots early in the possession,” Miller said. “And then once in the halfcourt, having a unique system and style that’s going to really pull our big guys away from the basket and force our guards to guard their man and be in the right position. It’s going to be quite a challenge.”
EWU is a decent defensive team too, finishing in the upper half of the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Breaking in 10 new players, the Wildcats are still very much a work in progress on offense and will need to be much sharper in the halfcourt than they were against Grambling State when they shot 38 percent and committed 15 turnovers.
“Four of them came in just kind of like a minute and a half bunch, and if you turn the ball over four times in a minute and a half, you change the game dramatically,” Miller said.
“We really know we’re in for a battle. I think at the end of tomorrow’s game, if we would be fortunate enough to win, I think we will really feel good about ourselves based on where our team is and the experience level of Eastern Washington. Again, this isn’t a normal situation. We really respect them and I think the quality of our schedule, this will be a team that we’ll point towards of being a very veteran group that’s going to have a successful season this year. Their coach (Shantay Legans) does an outstanding job and I have really enjoyed watching them over the last two or three days. They really have a system and a style that that is excellent basketball.”
Miller isn’t the only one who feels that way. Legans, 39, was ranked 11th in ESPN’s 40 Under 40 list of the top NCAA Division I basketball coaches under the age of 40.
Arizona forward Ira Lee will play after missing the opener with a concussion, which should help the Wildcats counter EWU’s small ball approach.
“Ira has a unique gift athletically where he can guard big guys that are on the perimeter, he can guard big guys that are in and around the basket, and he gives us much needed depth,” Miller said.
It’s unclear how many minutes Lee will play, but Miller made it sound as though he’ll have no restrictions.
Lee’s minutes could come at the expense of Christian Koloko, who struggled with his confidence against Grambling State.
The sophomore center mopped up nine rebounds in 22 minutes—including five offensive boards—but shot 3 for 8 from the field, badly missing some mid-range jumpers and clanking some looks at the rim.
Given how perimeter-oriented EWU is, this could be a tough matchup for the 7-footer.
What can Brown do for Arizona?
As we covered earlier, Terrell Brown is highly familiar with Eastern Washington. He shined against them last season when he was a big-time scorer at Seattle.
In a 74-66 loss last November, Brown had a career-high 31 points, nine rebounds and four assists, good enough to earn him MVP honors from KenPom’s analytics.
It’s unlikely he’ll replicate those numbers on Saturday. Not because he’s not capable of playing like that again, but because his role is much different with the Wildcats. He comes off the bench and is being asked to be more of a distributor and defender now that Kerr Kriisa is ineligible for the foreseeable future.
Still, it will be interesting to see what Brown does for an encore. Same with Jordan Brown (no relation), who’s coming off a monster 19-point, 13-rebound outburst in his UA debut against Grambling State.