For most teams in the country, it is COVID-19 that's hitting them hard and affecting their athletic programs. For Arizona men's basketball, it is not the pandemic that is limiting the depth of the team but rather injuries hitting them hard as of late.
First, it was Jemarl Baker Jr. going down for the season for the Wildcats a few weeks ago in the loss against UCLA, and now it is Bennedict Mathurin, who went down hard in what was a scary moment for the team in Monday’s win over Arizona State. The injuries are starting to pile up for a Wildcats rotation that was looking strong early in the year, and Arizona hasn’t even seen Kerr Kriisa on the court this season, one of the more highly-touted international recruits who came to Tucson prior to this season.
“This is the first time that [Mathurin] has experienced this, so I think at first it just kind of scares you,” head coach Sean Miller said. “You don’t really know where you’re going to go from here, but I believe that every day that goes by moving forward, which includes from today to tomorrow, he’s going to make significant progress just because it’s a soft tissue injury, and it’s not as significant as it could have been.”
“I don’t have the yes or no answer on whether he’ll play and then if he plays, what role he’ll have or how effective he’ll be,” Miller said. “We’re just right now letting him rest, rehab and allowing him to watch our game plan and be a part of everything we’re doing to prepare for the game.”
Arizona sees Stanford and California come to Tucson this week, beginning with a game against the Cardinal on Thursday, Jan. 28. Miller had nothing but praise for the entire Stanford team, especially Oscar da Silva, who dropped 26 points in a win over UCLA last Saturday, handing them their first conference loss.
“They are led by Oscar da Silva, who I think is one of the best overall players who plays in college basketball,” Miller said. “I mean what he does for their team on offense, defense, the leadership, the intangibles, you could tell he is their heart and soul. I think he is the overall best player in the Pac-12. There’s quite a few good ones in our conference this year, but I think he means the most to his team, so we have our hands full. And we’re going to have to play one heck of a game to beat them, especially under our circumstances.”
Arizona and Stanford have already faced off way back in December, a game in which the Wildcats lost, but both teams are looking vastly different since that meeting.
“I think we’re better as a team,” freshman Dalen Terry said. “Regardless of the injuries or not, everybody is able to step up, and I have confidence in everyone on our team, so everybody on our team is good enough within themselves to step up and contribute.”
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Arizona is not the only team dealing with injuries, as Stanford was without three of their usual starters in the win over the Bruins. That being senior guard Daejon Davis, junior guard Bryce Wills and five-star freshman forward Ziaire Williams, the three of whom combined for 40 points in Stanford’s three-point win over Arizona earlier this season. Stanford was still able to pull off the upset win over UCLA despite being short-handed, and the Wildcats will have to follow the same formula to succeed with the potential absence of Mathurin on Thursday.
“I don’t think we’ve faced a team this season that has had more adversity, injuries, illness, different things that make a season more difficult than Stanford has,” Miller said. “I really credit Jerod Haase and his staff. They’ve done an exceptional job, as has his players, especially those that have been there every game.”
One player on Stanford who has seen his role change drastically since the first time these teams faced off is junior forward Jaiden Delaire. He only played in 15 minutes in the win over Arizona back in December but has since seen his role dramatically increase, playing in 24-plus minutes in each of the last seven games, including a season-high 39 minutes played in Stanford’s upset win over UCLA where he dropped 19 points to go along with four rebounds and four assists. Miller has noted his increased usage throughout the season and even went as far as calling him an “extra starter” for Stanford when they are at full health.
“Although we’ve watched them play against other teams, I think the one aspect that has really changed for them is Delaire,” Miller said. “He just is coming on. He’s more productive as he has a bigger role, more minutes, a lot like [Bennedict] Mathurin for us or Azuolas Tubelis. You could see them almost growing with their added opportunity, and you see the same thing there with Delaire.”
With Arizona potentially being short-handed themselves coming up, they are going to need the trio of James Akinjo, Terrell Brown Jr. and Tubelis to step up in a major way for the team to remain successful. Miller noted that with the versatility that Tubelis has showcased, the freshman out of Lithuania may see some time at small forward in certain rotations. This could be even more prevalent coming up against a potentially bigger Stanford lineup.
“We have one player, Azuolas [Tubelis], who I think in a pinch could slide over and maybe play the small forward for a brief period of time,” Miller said. “But all of that isn’t something that can make us the best we can be. It is just a holding pattern, and that would be the best that we can do in tomorrow night’s game based on everything we’re going through right now.”
Stanford’s starting lineup against UCLA featured four of the five players standing in at 6-foot-7 or taller. If the starters remain the same Thursday against Arizona, it is possible that we could see some rotations where Christian Koloko, Tubelis and Jordan Brown are on the court at once with Terry and Akinjo, or Terry in the back court if the team is having any trouble grabbing rebounds against the Cardinal. Miller also noted that freshman Tibet Gorener could see more playing time. The freshman out of Turkey stands in at 6-foot-9, offering the size off the bench that Arizona might need more of against Stanford.
“We only have so much depth and so many guards,” Miller said. “[Gorener] is going to get called upon. Matt Weyand, one of our walk-ons, could be called upon, and then we’re just going to ask Dalen Terry, Terrell Brown and James Akinjo to do more and push through.”
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Arizona will also need to rely more on the aforementioned Terry moving forward, who stepped up in a major way in both wins against the Sun Devils, both on the stat sheet and in ways that wouldn’t show up in the stat sheet.
Terry, the No. 63 overall recruit in the 2020 class according to ESPN, came into the year with very high expectations. He didn’t quite meet expectations early on as a pure scorer but has still made a huge impact in many other ways including his growth as an overall playmaker, ability to find his teammates as a passer as well as using his size and length on the defensive side of the ball to impact his opponents.
“I’ve been working hard every day in practice, so I’ve just been waiting for my time,” Terry said. “At the beginning of the season, I played a lot, and I still play a lot every game, so in my head, I’m always going to be ready.”
The Wildcats also hope to get Kriisa back on the court, potentially as early as next week as he’s been fully cleared to practice with the team.
In his first year playing basketball in the United States, Kriisa has gone through quite the rocky season going from not being eligible to play with the team to suffering a broken nose in practice that further delayed his long-awaited debut on the court. When Kriisa is able to make his collegiate debut, there will certainly be minutes available for him, especially with the loss of Baker this season.
One might normally assume that after not playing for this long, Kriisa would be eased into action early on, but the fortunate part for Arizona is that despite not playing in a regular season game, Kriisa has still been with the team and for the most part practicing with the team, so it’s not like he hasn’t been playing basketball at all.
We are entering the final stretch of the season, so there isn’t much time left for Miller to assess where this team is at, as the hope is that the majority of this roster will be back this season when Arizona will be eligible to play in the NCAA tournament. The way Arizona is able to play these next couple of games while being short-handed will show a lot regarding what this team is truly about and what Arizona fans have to look forward to heading into next season.
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