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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Three takeaways from Arizona men’s basketball’s virtual press conference ahead of hosting Oregon schools

Nathanial Stenchever

Azuolas Tubelis, a freshman on the University of Arizona’s men’s basketball team, plays defense against an Eastern Washington player in McKale Center on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. 

Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller and freshman guard Bennedict Mathurin held a press conference over Zoom on Tuesday, Feb. 9 ahead of this week’s matchups against Oregon State and Oregon.

The Wildcats are coming off two tough losses to Utah and Colorado. However, freshman guard Kerr Kriisa was able to finally make his debut for the Wildcats in both of those games. With the final stretch of the season upon them, the Wildcats are looking to finish the season on a high note. 

“We just have to finish the best we can,” Miller said. “You’ve covered our team in a unique year from start to finish. I don’t have to explain that we have a lot of new faces or a lot of younger players, or that ‘Hey, I wish we had Jemarl Baker.’ We’ve dealt with really all of our circumstances as well as we can. …That’s one thing about sports; you win, you lose. Down the stretch here, I’m hoping that we have a few more wins in us and that we can grow and build on that.”

Here are a few takeaways from the rest of the press conference.

Kerr Kriisa’s impact in his first two games

The long-awaited arrival of Kriisa has finally come. In his first two games as a Wildcat, he has averaged 17.5 minutes played, 1.5 points, 0.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.5 steals while shooting 16.7 percent from the field. 

Although these numbers are not very attractive, Miller still believed that Kriisa’s playing time was only a benefit to the team last weekend.

“I don’t think [Kriisa] could have done a better job than he did on our last trip,” Miller said. “Very difficult circumstances which I have talked a lot about, but he came in the game, and he impacted both of our games in a positive manner. I thought more so against Colorado than Utah but his ability to set screens for a guard, he was involved in some of our best offensive possessions.”

The aforementioned circumstances Miller brought up were the questions surrounding Kriisa’s eligibility to play for the Wildcats amidst COVID-19 and playing for his home country of Estonia in the FIBA World Cup qualifier. Thankfully, the NCAA has allowed Kriisa to be eligible.

“[Kriisa] takes a lot of pride in what he does,” Miller said. “He’s a very smart player, and he’s a very physical player. He competes.”

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How James Akinjo’s minutes will be affected by Kriisa

With the insertion of Kriisa into the lineup, other players’ minutes will likely have to change, especially at the guard position. This lineup change could be very detrimental to the Wildcats since James Akinjo, who has had an outstanding year for the Wildcats, would probably be affected by this more than most of his teammates. 

“[Akinjo] is our heart and soul,” Miller said. “Usually the first thing that goes, especially as you get later in the year, you log those heavy minutes on defense. We’re looking for ways to maybe get [Akinjo] a break. I don’t know if he averages 36 minutes, if the answer is to change and go to 30, that may be too much both for him and our team. No doubt [Kriisa] could be the person that allows him to get a little bit more rest.”

From what coach Miller said, it seems as though Kriisa may take on the role of relieving Akinjo to provide him with some rest and add a little defense to the lineup. However, that rest period may not be very long, and you can expect Akinjo to still average over 30 minutes a game. 

What the Wildcat staff is doing to guide the younger players

After the loss to Utah, coach Miller had a talk with breakout freshman guard Bennedict Mathurin. 

Miller chose not to put Mathurin in the starting lineup for the second half of the game and cut his minutes down as well. This resulted in a negative change in Mathurin’s body language and attitude for the remainder of the game. He also came off the bench in the game against Colorado. However, in that game, Mathurin scored a team-high 22 points on 7-9 shooting.

“We’re giving them accurate feedback,” Miller said. “Sometimes the feedback is really positive. … Obviously, you have to give them direct feedback when things aren’t going as well. When you talk about the younger guys, you have a small group of four, five, six of those guys. … On a long road trip in the Pac-12, sometimes that’s an ideal time to really sit down and talk with them just because you really have their undivided attention.”

Mathurin was later asked what he took away from his learning experience of both being benched in the Utah game and coming off the bench against Colorado.

“My defense needs to be consistent,” Mathurin said. “I needed to be here for my teammates. I need to have a great attitude. I know I have a big role now on the team, and I just need to be present and here to go to war with my team.”

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