Sun, 24 Jan 2021

Short-handed Arizona opens against Grambling

Field Level Media
27 Nov 2020, 09:19 GMT+10

The Arizona Wildcats, after losing three one-and-done players to the 2020 NBA Draft, are short-handed heading into their season-opener against Grambling State on Friday night in Tucson, Ariz.

The rebuilding was already going to be a heavy lift, considering coach Sean Miller has to replace all five starters, including three to the NBA -- first-rounders Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji, and second-rounder Nico Mannion.

But it was announced this week that one of Arizona's six new international players -- freshman guard Kerr Kriisa, a potential starter -- has not been cleared by the NCAA and was temporarily returning home to play for the Estonian national team.

The Wildcats already knew they would be without French big man Daniel Batcho (knee) for a couple of months. Another post player, senior Ira Lee, might miss the game due to a concussion.

"What we don't have this year is great experience," Miller said. "It might be the least experienced team I've ever coached."

Grambling State has one game of experience under its belt this season -- a 69-53 loss at Grand Canyon on Wednesday in Phoenix. The Tigers shot just 36.2 percent from the floor (21 of 58), including 1 of 10 from 3-point range.

Grambling State, which lost its top two scorers from a 17-15 team, was picked to finish sixth in the 10-team Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) in a poll of head coaches and sports information directors.

"This is a new team, new foundation," said coach Donte Jackson. "We're going to try and grow and see who steps up and rises to the occasion on our team."

Two holdovers from last season -- junior Cameron Christon and senior Kelton Edwards -- each scored 12 points in the season opener.

Arizona has nine new players, including Kriisa -- five from Europe and one from Canada. Miller's challenge early will be to find the best fits for an inexperienced but versatile roster that might have to play small ball, given questionable depth up front.

The top returning scorer from a 21-11 team is guard Jemarl Baker, with just 5.7 points per game. The expected engine is sophomore guard James Akinjo, the 2018-19 Big East Freshman of the Year at Georgetown.

Other transfers to watch are former five-star big man Jordan Brown (Nevada) and unrelated Terrell Brown, a high-volume shooter from Seattle University. The graduate transfer averaged 20.7 points and 4.9 assists per game last season.

Among the international contingent, look for Haitian-Canadian wing Bennedict Mathurin and Lithuanian big Azuolas Tubelis, whose skill set compares to that of Nnaji, Miller said.

"I love the international guys we have; they all come from basketball backgrounds," said Miller, entering his 12th season with the Wildcats. "This class will impact our program's future in a big, big way."

--Field Level Media

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