Can the Wildcats win the NCAA Tournament? Questions for Arizona Part I
The Arizona Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament with three losses or less for only the third time in nearly 30 years.
For a program rich in success, the first year at the helm of Tommy Lloyd produced one of the school’s best teams heading into the big dance.
With all the intrigue surrounding the Wildcats’ chances of winning it all, ArizonaSports.com editors Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman preview Arizona’s chances in the NCAA Tournament by going through six big questions.
Here are the first three of Part I.
What do you think of this team’s chances of making their first Final Four since the Lute Olson era?
Kellan Olson: Outstanding, thanks for asking!
This team has no holes. It’s extremely deep in terms of talent. When Kerr Kriisa is healthy, Arizona has eight guys who can be its best player any night. That includes reserves like Oumar Ballo, Pelle Larsson and Justin Kier, who have improved further over the course of the season – especially last month for Larsson and Kier. His entire starting five of Kriisa, Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry, Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko should have made it into the All-Pac 12 teams. Three of them made it.
Stylistically, it’s even more impressive.
Kriisa, Mathurin, Terry and Tubelis are behind the best passing team in the country. Larsson and Kier aren’t too bad after the rebound either. Ballo, Koloko and Tubelis offer legitimate NBA size and athleticism in the frontcourt to protect the rim and work the glass. Mathurin has evolved as the No. 1 scoring option who can drop 25 points any night. All eight guys, especially Koloko and Terry, are great full-back athletes who move their feet well defensively and won’t be overwhelmed by fast-paced opposition.
Shooting, which is still at a respectable 35.4 percent from three-pointers, would be the only real break area. But the Wildcats’ ball movement that thrives on their inside and transition efficiency is so deadly that they can more than overcome a bad shot or two.
Even though there’s only a little NCAA Tournament experience on this team, they’re incredibly legit and should be favorites to win it all.
Kevin Zimmerman: Their chances are as good as those of others. And I think a lot of people like Arizona’s odds because they have five players who could finish a game as the best player tonight. What other team has that?
Gonzaga is managed by Drew Timme and likely NBA No. 1 draft pick Chet Holmgren. Holmgren looked deadly in two recent games against Saint Mary’s, while Timme could at some point be restricted after tackling undersized WCC teams all year.
Kansas enters the rolling tournament. Baylor is up there, Villanova is just scary because it’s Villanova, and UCLA has its experience from last year.
Big Ten teams have their own Player of the Year nominees in Keegan Murray (Iowa), Johnny Davis (Wisconsin), EJ Liddell (Ohio State) and Kofi Cockburn (Illinois). But these teams all have their flaws.
Kentucky, Auburn and Duke, I would say, have the multiple high-caliber talents that could gel at the right time. But Arizona gelled in December.
The point I’m trying to make: The Wildcats have played well all season long at both ends of the court with seven to eight players deep. Four of them could end up in the NBA. Shooting issues aside, it’s hard to say any other team has a better combination of talent on paper and a plan to succeed.
How affected will the Wildcats be by Kerr Kriisa’s absence if he misses more than the opener against a No. 16 seed?
Olson: Much more than people think. I understand Kriisa is an erratic player but he is the team’s best pick-and-roller and a tenacious defender. Although he can shoot 0 of 14 from one deep game and 8 of 9 the next, he takes the most 3s of anyone and that’s because of his shooting quality in a multitude of situations. .
He also doesn’t care if he misses, and those possessions miss or do where he flies down the field and gets an Arizona shot in seven seconds or less (heh) helps keep the pressure on that lethal offense of the Wildcats exerts on the other teams. . It’s part of what makes Kriisa the heart of this team as a true playmaker, just in a different way than we’re used to.
All of this hinders the Wildcats’ double-center lineups the most, where Ballo and Koloko rely on Kriisa’s vision when possessions go awry and can’t turn the big guys over. There’s less spacing because there’s one less shooter on the floor, and because Kriisa isn’t playing, that means that formation is even more present.
Even though Arizona can do well the first weekend without him due to the quality of their Kier play, the Sweet 16 and such are huge games where they really need the unique spirit that Kriisa plays with. .
Zimmerman: Immediately, I think it will have more impact on the depth than schematized. Arizona was stuck at eight players before Kriisa’s injury, and head coach Tommy Lloyd went to underused rookie Adama Bal in the Pac-12 title game just to keep that rotation at that size.
The hallmark of this team is to run as a team, play one-on-one defense and eventually break down an opponent. It’s not as easy to do against teams that can match Arizona’s size and physical profile.
But once the Wildcats reach blue blood type programs, it will matter that Kriisa’s seven 3-point attempts per game, pesky defense and play aren’t there. This is an important part of the scouting report.
That said, Kier has plenty of playing, shooting, and no-rebound playing experience to make up for Kriisa’s absence in the immediate future.
Terry can lead more point guard, and maybe Arizona can continue to get more pop by finding him a little 3-point hit. Bal also punched two 3s in just nine minutes of play last Saturday against UCLA.
What kind of profile does an Arizona opponent need to pull off a surprise against them?
Olson: This is a discussion we want to have because of the balance of the Wildcats.
First of all, they must have a size. Ballo and Koloko have been eating smaller squads all year and will start again in March. This size doesn’t have to be functional. Just a small semblance of being great human beings.
Beyond that, the team either needs to be well balanced and/or have some serious star power at the top. Arizona’s eight base guys won’t all be underperforming in a game. Some of them? Sure. But the depth is impressive and will always see guys step in and make plays. Can a random Cinderella dude like Ali Farokhmanesh from northern Iowa in 2010 do it? How about Connecticut’s 2011 run behind Kemba Walker?
Think of performances like that. Yes, like Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker of Wisconsin against the Wildcats two years in a row.
In terms of landmarks, reaching 3 and limiting rotations are good choices. As for the Arizona area, Seton Hall No. 8 and TCU No. 9 don’t qualify for this and struggle offensively, so I’d be shocked if either of them posed a real threat over the weekend. -end.
Further out, however, is where third-seeded Tennessee and No. 4 Illinois could wait successfully in regular-season fixtures. Tennessee beat the Wildcats while Illinois pushed Arizona to the brink with 16 triples in Champaign, and both of these teams have guards who can score. We all know a second-seeded Villanova team will perform and No. 5 Houston is rock solid even without injured leading scorer Marcus Sasser. I’m keeping a close eye on seventh-seeded Ohio State, on which ESPN’s 2022 NBA Draft Big Board has two potential first-round picks, EJ Liddell and Malaki Branham.
Zimmerman: Arizona is either the biggest or the second biggest team in the country, depending on who you ask. Lloyd admits he likes to go with Koloko and Ballo on the court at the same time, which adds a difficult element to manage given that Arizona’s regular rosters are probably larger than half of NBA teams.
An opponent therefore needs size.
They also need shooting. Colorado took 17 more threes and made 10 more than Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals and STILL LOST BY 10. That’s because they spat 18 times and committed a ton of fouls , putting the Wildcats in play 25 times (they missed once! ). We’ll call the fouling a symptom of a lack of size and credit Arizona’s aggression.
A team cannot return the ball against Arizona and cannot have a foul.
This list is long!
Here’s something that also matches what Kellan wrote and I swear I didn’t copy: Matches are important.
Schema-wise, Arizona is solid. It could depend on someone that neither their best perimeter defender (Terry), nor the best athlete winger (Mathurin), nor the pesky ball-hawk (Kriisa) nor the floating rim protector (Koloko) can handle.
A short list of these guys includes Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Iowa’s Keegan Murray and Ohio State’s Liddell – all are guys who are giant wings and three-tier scorers.
Notable players from the Arizona quadrant who could fall into this category include Colorado State’s Liddell and David Roddy.
Out of respect, I’ll also throw a bone at Cockburn from Illinois, who could have a rebound performance against Koloko if they meet again. May be.