No. 16 Arizona has lost its two biggest games of the season — at Baylor and against Gonzaga. Saturday’s matchup against St. John’s isn’t in that top-10 class, but it won’t be an easy test in the Wildcats’ final nonconference game.
The Red Storm (10-2) feature the pressure defense of first-year coach Mike Anderson and have won six in a row and as they head into Saturday night’s clash against Arizona at the Al Attles Classic at Chase Center in San Francisco.
Anderson, who took UAB, Missouri and Arkansas to multiple NCAA tournaments, imported the “40 minutes of Hell” style of mentor Nolan Richardson to St. John’s. It’s working. St. John’s was 14th in the country in turnovers forced (18.3 per game) after Wednesday night’s 85-57 home win over Albany.
With Anderson striving for his team to deflect 40 passes per game, the Red Storm tied a season-high by forcing the Great Danes into 24 turnovers.
“I call this one of our better-effort games. I thought we had multiple efforts all night long,” Anderson said. “I thought our attention to defense, attention to detail, pressuring the ball, deflections … it was good, especially with one of your leading scorers not playing.”
Senior guard Mustapha Heron (15.0 points per game) is recovering from a sprained ankle, and his availability for Saturday was unknown. His absence would be felt on offense. He and LJ Figueroa (a team-high 15.1 points per game) lead the 3-point attack, combining to make 47 of 118 (39.8 percent). The rest of the team is shooting 25.4 percent (31 of 122).
Arizona (10-2) is coming off an 84-80 loss to now-No. 2 Gonzaga in which the Wildcats trailed by 16 before a furious rally in the final two minutes. The focus will be on freshman point guard Nico Mannion, who had 10 assists but struggled through a 3-of-20 shooting night — 1 of 10 from 3-point range.
“He believes in himself,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Mannion, widely projected as a top 10 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
“I go on practice; he’s been shooting the ball well. … Sometimes as much as we all want them to go in, they didn’t. It’s very important for me to say this, this loss doesn’t fall on him and his shooting. It’s one of a number of things that we could have done better.”
Arizona’s top three scorers are freshmen — post player Zeke Nnaji (15.9 points per game), Mannion (14.3) and wing Josh Green (13.3). Miller is intent on getting more looks for Nnaji, who began to draw double teams after his fast start to the season.
Nnaji posted 16 points and 17 rebounds against Gonzaga, and Miller called him a “monster” afterward. The 10 shots were his most in six games.
“I think that’s a really good sign for our team,” Miller said. “I have to do a better job getting him better opportunities on offense — off rolls in the middle of the lane, not just in the post. If you look at his 10 shots, he probably got four or five by himself on his second shots. That’s not enough and that’s my responsibility.”
After Saturday’s game, Arizona won’t play again until hosting Arizona State on Jan. 4 for the start of Pac-12 play. St. John’s will be off until hosting Butler on New Year’s Eve to kick off its Big East slate.
–Field Level Media