SAN DIEGO – Entering Friday night’s game, the news was encouraging. Kerr Kriisa was confident he would play in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. He even took part in pregame warmups.
Yet when the Arizona Wildcats took the court at Viejas Arena against Wright State, it was graduate transfer Justin Kier starting in his place.
The result? The Wildcats struggled to take care of the ball without sophomore guard and team assist leader Kriisa in the 87-70 win. They advance to Sunday’s game against TCU knowing they need to cut down on turnovers.
Coming into No. 1 seed Arizona’s matchup with No. 16 seed Wright State, the Wildcats held the 12th-best assist-to-turnover ratio in Division I: 1.5. Arizona came in ranked 226th in turnovers per game with 13.2.
The Wildcats had 10 in the first half alone and 19 for the game.
“We had a lot of turnovers and it was from everybody, all these guys playing minutes,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We’ve got to tighten it up. I don’t want these guys to play conservative. Obviously we’re playing without Kerr right now. We have to tighten it up a little bit and hopefully we’ll be able to rein it in for the next game because we’re shooting a great percentage, but the turnovers on offense kill your efficiency.”
Kriisa was sidelined after suffering a right ankle injury in the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Wright State was able to convert Arizona’s 19 turnovers into just eight points. The Wildcats scored four points off of six Raiders turnovers.
Sophomore guard Bennedict Mathurin not only led all scorers with 18 points, the Pac-12 Player of the Year led all players in turnovers with four, one off his career high.
“We had a lot of turnovers, bad decisions, we didn’t play with fundamentals at first,” Mathurin said. “But, we adjusted the second half, took care of the ball a little bit, and just did the things that we used to do the whole year, basically. So we had a pretty good experience, pretty good performance, but (we) always need to improve.”
Arizona also came into play Friday leading Division I competition in assists per game with 19.9. The Wildcats turned to an unlikely source for assists, as junior center Christian Koloko tied for the team lead with six, including five in the first half. Koloko had just five assists in the month of March before Friday night’s game.
“(Wright State) was really collapsing on the paint, in all our penetration, and even in our post feeds,” Lloyd said. “He had maybe two, three or four post entries where he kicked it out to the perimeter for a 3. And they were digging off the ball side. That’s something we work on in our offense. It’s a great shot for us. And he made some really good decisions.”
Without Kriisa, the point guard position is very fluid for Arizona. Lloyd hasn’t specifically named any other player to the point guard position, allowing his other guards to play free.
“To be honest with you, it looked like Dalen (Terry) played the point a lot,” Lloyd said. “I know you think I’m crazy, I don’t tell them, either one (Terry or Kier), to be the point guard. My idea is whichever one wants it should be it. And I was happy with that. We’re 3-0 without our starting point guard. It’s a great time of year to be 3-0.”
Signs are trending toward Kriisa being available in some capacity on Sunday against TCU, who forced 16 Seton Hall turnovers in its first round win. Kriisa was in full uniform on Friday, but the only action the Estonian guard saw was pregame warmups.
“Kerr has been our point guard all year. And he’s helped us run our offense, getting in our flow, help us in our transition, with decision-making,” Lloyd said. “The calculus today was simple. I didn’t feel like he was quite ready to play. And was hoping that we could get through this game without needing him. And fortunately we were. Now we’ll kind of roll up our sleeves and see what tomorrow brings, keep attacking the thing. He’s closer to playing than not playing. So hopefully soon.”
Arizona is scheduled to battle No. 9 seed TCU at 6:40 p.m. Arizona time on Sunday for a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen in San Antonio.