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Thursday night was a rough one for the Pac-12. California lost by 35 points to Duke. Coastal Carolina routed Utah by 22. Washington State lost by eight points at home to Omaha. UCLA fell to visiting Hofstra, 88-78

Things looked dire for Arizona, as well, as the No. 14 Wildcats trailed South Dakota State 32-29 at halftime. Leading scorer Zeke Nnaji had two fouls and zero points at the break. Worse, the reigning, two-time Pac-12 Freshman Player of the Week hadn’t even attempted a field goal yet.

However, the Wildcats would turn things around in the second half to win their fifth straight game, to open the 2019-2020 season, by getting back to the basics.

In the opening 20 minutes, it was South Dakota State displaying a better version of the Pack Line defense. In a defensive scheme designed to keep offenses out of the paint and force contested jump shots, the Wildcats took the bait and were a lowly 3-for-14 shooting from deep.

The Jackrabbits were also the aggressor, chasing down loose balls, outrebounding the Wildcats, and outscoring Arizona 8-0 on second chance points.

Following intermission, Arizona was better in matching South Dakota State’s intensity. Arizona outrebounded the Jackrabbits 20-13 in the half. The Wildcats pulled down 10 offensive rebounds while SDSU only snagged three. Arizona had a 12-2 scoring advantage on second chance points and held an eight-point edge on points in the paint. Arizona also made 18-of-23 free throw attempts after the break. Perhaps most significant, Arizona only attempted three, 3-Pointers in the second half, and only committed three turnovers after committing 12 turnovers in the game’s opening frame

Impressively, even with Arizona’s improved effort, the Jackrabbits still battled the Wildcats to the end.

Three Jackrabbits scored in double figures, led by Douglas Wilson’s 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Brandon Key added 13 points and six assists. SDKU shot 46.8 percent from the floor (22-for-47), while only getting outrebounded 32-30 by the bigger Wildcats.

Arizona’s freshmen led the way, offensively. Nico Mannion matched Wilson’s game high of 15 points, which included a pair of 3-Pointers and a monster duck, late in the game, that brought the house down. Josh Green had 14 points, while Zeke Nnaji overcame two fouls and a scoreless first half to finish with 12 points and six rebounds on 4-of-5 shooting.

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Nnaji, who entered the game making 17-straight field goal attempts, missed his first shot attempt of the game – in the second half – on a fluke. The ball appeared to slip from his hands on the way up, resulting in a miss and snapping his streak. However, Nnaji would quickly return to form and knock down his final four shot attempts before eventually fouling out.


The Frosh are Hard Core

We have written extensively on the three freshmen already, with focus on the level of toughness each has brought to the program. On Thursday, Mannion capped an entire game of jawing with SDKU’s Key by blowing by Key, driving down a crowded lane, and posterizing the opponent with a one-handed, monster jam. As amazing as the dunk was, more impressive were the two 3-Pointers where Mannion demonstrated an innate ability to fake a strong dribble drive, step-back on balance, and knock down the trey. Mannion’s take no prisoners persona is an intangible that is a tremendous benefit to the team. He will make mistakes, and has, but he exudes a level of confidence that results in the types of things where he can have an awful game and still hit the game-winner in the final seconds.

Similarly, Green is already proving he can get pulled after making a mistake and still return to the game with a confidence and freeness to make plays when they matter most. Among the three freshmen seeing significant minutes so far, Green has yet to have a monster game, but we know they are coming.

As for Nnaji, or “Zeke”, the big man seems unflappable. After a half of basketball where effective double teaming denied him a single shot attempt from the floor, and despite battling foul trouble all night, Zeke remained aggressive and confident.

Add all three together and Arizona has an impactful and critically important freshmen trio of key contributors who, in many ways, are the biggest reason for Arizona’s early success.

Chase Jeter Needs to Make a Bigger Impact on Offense 

SDKU sent a huge message to future Wildcat opponents. Throw the kitchen sink at Nnaji on the low block, keep Mannion away from the center area of the court, dare Arizona to beat you from the perimeter, and hope the Wildcats are missing jumpers. It was not until reserve big man Stone Gettings started getting touches inside that things also started to open up for Nnaji. Arizona needs that second scoring threat in the painted area to deny opponents the luxury of double teaming Nnaji. Jeter has had plenty of scoring looks this season, but has yet to capitalize. Defensively, few are better. However, offensively, Jeter is missing bunnies at the rim that if made, consistently, would force opponents to rethink strategy. Why this is important is Nnaji is as good a 15-foot jump shooter as he is on the low block. If there’s a bona fide scoring threat on the low block, Nnaji and even Gettings can feed all game on mid-range jumpers against Pack Line or zone defenses designed to protect the lane.

Depth on Display

Despite the shaky outing against SDKU, Arizona’s depth was still on display. In fact, without depth, the outcome may have been different. Individually, no single player excelled on both ends of the floor. However, collectively, everyone contributed enough to get the team win. Ira Lee’s 3-for-3 shooting from the field proved significant. Jeter’s seven rebounds were huge. Green’s 7-for-8 shooting from the charity stripe was clutch on a night when he was just 4-for-13 shooting from the floor.

Arizona definitely struggled on Thursday, but the team first mentality was evident. Nobody put their head down, nobody threw their hands in the air on a ridiculous night when the officials called 45 total fouls. Nobody coward from the challenge despite things being way tougher than in any of Arizona's first four games. Nobody shied away from the in-game coaching of Sean Miller, who was clearly not pleased by what he was seeing. For a team with eight new roster players not fully familiar with Miller and the staff, it’s a positive sign that they can take and shake off heated instruction. Rather than pout, this team continues to play. It will serve them well as the season rolls on, with things only getting tougher from here.

Up Next: 

Arizona hosts Long Beach State on Sunday. Tip time is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. MST. The game will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.