Arizona spent Thanksgiving with family and friends accompanying the team to the Maui Invitational in Hawaii. And there were a few extra items that crowded the dining table, compliments from the Wildcats winning the tournament and Omar Ballo Named Most Valuable Player.
The victories over Cincinnati, No. 17 San Diego State and No. 10 Creighton will surely see Arizona rise from No. 14 in the latest Associated Press poll while also bringing the team a boatload of national attention.
“To play three games in three days against three really good teams with very different styles and come out on top like we did says a lot about this group,” says UA coach Tommy Lloyd said afterwards.
Those games also helped better define what the 2022-23 Wildcats can be, propelling them to No. 8 on the KenPom rankings. Here’s what we learned about the Maui title over Arizona:
The best big men in the country?
Think of last year’s 1-2 frontcourt duo Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis was impressive? The current one could be even better.
Tubelis started the tournament with a 30-piece against Cincinnati and might have repeated it if he hadn’t gotten in trouble in the other two games. Then Ballo came out with his own 30th place finish in the title game, a career-high along with a career-best 13 rebounds.
The long-awaited eruption of Oumar Ballo is upon us, and it’s glorious. That’s him treating one of the best centers in the country, Ryan Kalkbrenner, like he’s not there.
The best part of that game was Ballo sprinting to the ground to make sure he could position himself pic.twitter.com/GNvPKmTJnv
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) November 24, 2022
Ballo was 27 of 34 from the field, scoring 63 points and rebounding 32 rebounds, while Tubelis still managed to hit 58 on 24-of-36 shots with 25 boards. Overall, this duo made 51 of 70 shots in Maui and collectively scored 44.9 percent of Arizona’s points.
“When you have two of the best bigs in the country, you have to give them the ball if you play smart,” the point guard said Kerr Kriisa said. “If you’re trying to win, you give them the ball and let them do their job.”
For the year, Ballo and Tubelis average 38.3 points and 18 rebounds and shoot 74.2 percent.
Better late than never
Arizona’s first three games were such overtakes it was hard to imagine what it was like Courtney Ramey in the mix this would have changed. But against tougher competition in Maui, his presence was massive and may have been the difference between a loss or two and the title.
The Texas transfer guard made quite the UA debut, scoring 48 points in Maui and hitting 10 of 16 3s while also playing an aggressive outside defense. He had not scored 48 goals in three games since February 2021 when he had 49 in three competitions, including a career-high 28.
Arizona has had its fair share of impact transfers over the years, but didn’t immediately garner as much attention. James Akinjos 43 points in his first three games with the Wildcats of 2020-21 was previously the most by transfer in at least 25 years.
Kerr Kriisa’s offensive aggressiveness
One of five players in Division I last season with 150 assists and 80 3-pointers, and the first UA player since Jason Gardner 2001-02 established Kriisa as a great distributor and someone who can light it from the outside. That continues this month, with 18 triples and 45 dimes in the first six games.
But we saw something special from Kriisa in Maui: a willingness to turn the tide and not just serve to a teammate.
Kriisa made 17 2-point shots in Maui making 10, including a career-high timing of five twos in the title game against Creighton (on 10 tries). A year ago, he attempted just 49 twos in 33 games, as opposed to 238 threes, and was shooting under 35 percent in both areas.
It’s early, but Kriisa is shooting more than 50 percent from 2 and 3 and is also off the line 18 of 20. The last wildcat with a 50/50/90 season: Salim Stoudamire 2004-05.
Still looking for a balance to the bad stuff
Arizona averaged 13.3 turnovers in Maui, down significantly from the 20.7 average prior to the tournament. And after 42 steals against them in three games at McKale, the Wildcats’ Maui opponents combined for 24 shots.
A turnover rate of 21.7 percent is still high, but Lloyd has said the freebies will come at the pace Arizona is playing at. He doesn’t want to play timidly with the ball and make his team slow down and be less explosive on offense.
A careful balance is also required to increase defensive intensity without fouling in the process. That was a problem for Arizona in Maui, where foul trouble tried their best to throw a wrench in the title run.
The Wildcats had seven players who logged four or more fouls in one game in the tournament, with Tubelis and Pele Larson reach this number twice. That aggressive approach to defense paid off against San Diego State, keeping them at 38.1 percent shooting, and for much of the win over Creighton, the Blue Jays couldn’t get good shots because Arizona was covering their scorers so much.
Concerned about the closing time
Arizona led Cincinnati by 18 with 1:34 to go before conceding 10 straight garbage points on the track, a late drought that really only mattered to those who took the Wildcats at minus 9.5. Similar late runs from opponents caused UA to go unmarking against Southern and Utah Tech, but as with Cincinnati, the results were never in doubt.
But the UA made the victory over Creighton a lot of closer than it needed to be, from up to nine with 2:21 to go to thwart three in the final seconds. Arizona had similar breaks to end the first halves against Cincinnati and San Diego State, and was outplayed 6-0 by the Bearcats and 10-2 by the Aztecs to lead by 10 and 4 instead of 16 and 12, respectively .
Ironically, Arizona avoided that end of the first half against Creighton, beating the Blue Jays 7-2 on the stretch.