In between marquee games against Illinois and New Mexico State, the Arizona Wildcats held something of a glorified practice Thursday at McKale Center.
In an 87-39 win over San Jose State, the Wildcats had a chance to test themselves against the kind of matchup zone defense they will undoubtedly see often in the upcoming Pac-12 season.
They had a chance to carefully return sophomore guard Devonaire Doutrive after his suspension was lifted, and a chance to mix in everyone on the roster to see more about what might work in this season’s rotation.
Oh, and of course, everybody had plenty of time to see Zeke Nnaji do his thing yet again.
The freshman big man from Minnesota was nearly flawless inside, scoring a season-high 26 points while hitting all eight field goals he took and going 10 for 12 from the line. He also collected 10 rebounds though he did turn the ball over twice.
"I think (San Jose State) really pressured the ball well," Nnaji said. "And because of that they left a lot of space in the middle open."
A four-star prospect out of Minnesota, Nnaji is now averaging 21.7 points on 81.3 percent shooting from the field while he’s also hit 13 of 16 of his free throws.
"Obviously Zeke Nnaji was fantastic," said UA coach Sean Miller.
While the Wildcats hit 8 of 18 3-pointers, Nnaji was also a zone-buster inside because every time he received the ball, something good happened for the Wildcats – either an score around the basket, a midrange jumper or a drawn foul.
Doutrive added 12 points while Jemarl Baker had nine and Josh Green eight points for the Wildcats although he missed all three 3-pointers he took.
"For a lot of our guys that was their first experience playing against that type of defense, and it just takes a couple opportunities for them to settle in and get comfortable," Miller said.
Doutrive appeared to be in position to start at shooting guard when he was suspended before the Wildcats' Nov. 1 exhibition game against Chico State, and he also missed Arizona's first two exhibition games.
Entering seven minutes into Thursday's game, Doutrive was greeted with warm cheers while taking his latest step in an up-and-down UA career so far.
After averaging 11.0 minutes in 26 games last season, Doutrive's guardian announced he would transfer last spring but a month later Doutrive said he was staying. He then reported to the Wildcats in July and showed considerable improvement into the all, twice winning the team’s weekly gold jersey award as the most productive player in practice and starring in the Sept. 27 Red-Blue Game.
While Miller had referred to Doutrive as a starter last month, he has started Dylan Smith at shooting guard since Doutrive was suspended.
Miller also worked in center Christian Koloko who did not play against Illinois on Sunday, while getting eight players to score six points or more.
The Wildcats had to do it all against a zone, which was exactly the kind of thing Miller has said they’ve worked against in practice during the preseason, knowing it was likely to be thrown at them often again this season.
UA assistant coach Justin Gainey said he expected the Spartans would play a matchup zone heavily, based on SDSU’s two earlier games, a win at Hofstra and a homecourt loss to Portland on Sunday.
The easy win moved the Wildcats to 3-0 entering what is expected to be a much tougher test on Sunday against New Mexico State at McKale Center. But just playing the Spartans could wind up hurting the Wildcats slightly in NET ratings later in the season, unless SJSU can improve this season after finishing last season with a 341 NET rating – the 13th worst rating in Division I.
After winning four games in each of coach Jean Prioleau’s first two seasons, the Spartans (1-2) showed signs they might be headed in the right direction. They returned eight players and added two transfers from Wake Forest, showing immediate signs of improvement when they opened the season with a win at Hofstra.
“They had a really good win to go to New York and beat Hofstra,” Miller said before Thursdays’ game. “They're from the Mountain West Conference, a good conference that is very well respected and they’ve got a coach who’s trying to build a program so it's hard to look at where they were a year ago and maybe where they could be this year.”
The Spartans followed their Hofstra win by coming home to host Portland -- then made just 5 of 16 free throws and 6 of 26 3-pointers in a 72-57 loss.
“We did what we needed to do to win that game at Hofstra,” Prioleau said. “Then we came home and they did what they needed to do to beat us, and that's college basketball. The question is, hopefully, I'm going to have my team ready to compete on Thursday night in a really hostile environment.”
The Spartans started off by throwing the Wildcats off slightly with their zone defense, but missed many shots badly on the other end to negate anything they were doing defensively.
Besides, the Wildcats always had Nnaji to turn to. Nnaji had UA’s first six points of the game and later added a layup and a 15-footer when UA built double-digit leads late in the first half.
Good teamwork also helped the Wildcats in the first half. They had 14 assists for their 16 made field goals, and shot of 48.5 percent from the field before halftime while holding SJSU to 21.2 percent shooting, though the Spartans missed badly on some relatively open looks they had at the basket. SJSU also held its own on the boards, collecting nine of their first-half misses into offensive rebounds and scoring five points off them.
Over the first eight minutes of the game, San Jose State shot just 4 of 15 from the field but picked up six of those 11 misses. Still, UA took a 17-10 lead at that point.
Nnaji finished the half with 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting to help UA take a 39-17 halftime lead, and by the time Nnaji broke free for a layup to hit 20 points in the second half, the Wildcats were up comfortably, 61-28. Nnaji left to loud cheers with six minutes left, the game all but over even at that point.
Nnaji and the Wildcats are expected to face a much tougher test on Sunday at McKale Center against New Mexico State, however.