Arizona soars, depth on display in 87-39 win over San Jose State

Zeke Nnaji scored a career-high 26 points in 87-39 win over San Jose State.Jacob Snow - USA Today Images 2019
Gary Randazzo

Aside from a slow shooting start to the first half and five turnovers in the first four minutes of the second half, the Wildcats dominated visiting San Jose State in Thursday’s 87-39 victory at McKale Center. The lopsided final score represented the first time an Arizona squad has defeated an opponent by such a wide margin since 2015.

The dominance had as much to do with Arizona as it did facing a Spartans team that only won eight games a season ago.

The Wildcats are deep this year. In fact, this might be the deepest roster in the Sean Miller Era.

The Wildcats are skilled. In fact, I can’t remember another Arizona team in the Miller Era with more individual players capable of using the dribble to get into effective scoring position.

The Wildcats are talented. Not only has this year’s team proven it can score inside and outside, but they have already bought in to Miller’s brand of physical, ball-hawking defense.

Add it all up and there’s a reason Arizona, which entered the game favored by almost 30 points, ended up blasting those predictions out of the water and instead winning by almost 50.

Through the first three games of the 2019-2020 season, Arizona has definitely passed the eye test. If they continue to execute, stay hungry, and avoid resting on previous accomplishments, this team will go places.

For example, Arizona has now produced at least 18 assists in three straight games for the first time since 2007. Against the Spartans, Arizona scored 16 field goals on 14 assists in the first half and finished the game assisting on 24 of the team’s 30 field goals. Defensively, the Wildcats held the Spartans to 23% shooting on 14-of-61 field goals. The Wildcats also forced 18 turnovers while only committing eight.

From a team perspective, those numbers are solid regardless of the opponent. Individually, the stat lines were equally impressive.

Zeke Nnaji led all scorers with 26 points on a perfect 8-for-8 shooting. The freshman big man has now connected of 26-of-31 field goals this season, while leading the team in rebounds. Nnaji is also emerging as the club’s emotional leader, treating every moment as if the Wildcats just tied the score in the waning moments of the national championship.

Kentucky transfer Jemarl Baker knocked down three 3-Pointers to finish with nine points. The sophomore also had five assists and zero turnovers. Impressively, Baker was one of eight Wildcats to score at least six points against the Spartans.

One of those was sophomore Devonaire Doutrive, who was suspended for the first two games of the season due to undisclosed team rule violations. In his season debut, Doutrive had 12 points, 5 rebounds, and two assists.

Beyond the numbers, Arizona simply seems like a team that is possessed. Whether this truly is the most talented team in the Miller Era remains to be seen. Whether or not they can sustain this early level of success is yet to be determined. However, the signs are definitely there that this year’s club could prove to be one of the special teams in Wildcat history.

Prior to the start of the season, Arizona Sports Illustrated highlighted five things to watch for in the early going of the season. Aside from evaluating the early play of newcomers Nico Mannion and Josh Green, we considered the following:

  • The Pack Line Defense
  • Physicality and Toughness 
  • Shooters vs. Scorers
  • Big or Small or the Perfect Mix

First, the Pack Line Defense is back due to Arizona’s overall size and quickness across the roster. Big men, so far, are demonstrating that they can move their feet and avoid fouls on the perimeter, while retreating back to the paint to contest inside shots and battle on the boards. The guards are forwards have been equally sound in defending with their feet and not their hands.

Second, physicality and toughness can be seen everywhere on the floor. Whether on offense or defense, Wildcats are not getting pushed off the blocks. Ball handlers are squaring up opponents. Dribble drives have been aggressive. Passing has been sharp. No one seems afraid to take the shot, or create offense when the defense first appears to be winning the possession. Defensively, everyone is not only playing hard, but smart. The chemistry is there. The defensive rotations are there. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but with seven new players seeing significant minutes this season, there was reason for concern that chemistry could take time to develop.

Third, Arizona not only has scorers this season, but they have scorers who can actually shoot from the perimeter. What I mean is defense can no longer sag off. Aside from returners like Chase Jeter and Ira Lee who are never going to shoot a 3-Pointer anyway, opposing defenses are going to be forced to extend their sets against the Wildcats this year. Where that works to Arizona’s advantage is guys like Nnaji, Mannion, Green, Baker, Doutrive, Max Hazzard, Dylan Smith, and Stone Gettings are as capable of knocking down a 20-footer as they are putting the ball on the floor and creating any shot they want (at least so far). I’m no mathematician, but that’s eight Wildcats who can create offense for their team from the perimeter. Honestly, you have to go back to Lute Olson’s best teams to find that level of scoring versatility.

Finally, it was going to be worth watching whether or not Arizona’s size advantage would be negated by having to go small to match the quickness of its smaller opponents. Well, that worry is gone. Not only does Arizona feature NBA size at the guard and forward positions, the Wildcat big men are even quicker and more agile than originally anticipated. Credit Arizona’s strength and conditioning staff for that, but also acknowledge the physical skills of these Wildcats.

Next Up:

Arizona hosts New Mexico State on Sunday November 17. Tip time is noon MST. The game will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.     

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Gary - this is unlike any pack line before that Miller has run. We are defending to about 18 or 20 feet instead of 16 and we are gambling on steals, we are not sending 4 to the boards ...the pack line is designed for smaller, slower teams and we are running....Either they are not playing what Miller wants them to or hell has frozen over and Miller is allowing for different defensive ideas. We know that hell has not frozen over, so I fully expect Miller to tighten the clamps, force them to play the idiot pack-line and ruin this team.