Azuolas Tubelis has been Arizona’s best player all season, but the junior big man has some unfinished business in the NCAA Tournament as the second-seeded Wildcats take on No. 15 seed Princeton in the South region’s first round Thursday in Sacramento, Calif.
Tubelis is on pace to become the seventh player to lead the Pac-12 in scoring (19.8) and rebounding (9.3), and he is coming off a double-double in a win against UCLA that gave Arizona (28-6) its second consecutive conference tournament title.
What he is sure to hear plenty of this week is how he performed in last season’s NCAA tourney, which ended for Arizona in the Sweet 16.
In the final two games — against a pair of rugged defensive teams in TCU and Houston — Tubelis had as many turnovers as points (seven) and shot 2-of-15 from the field. He was 0-for-8 in the loss to Houston.
“I know last year he had some bad games,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “I know he’s playing well right now. I know he’s had a great year, and I know he’s a really good player. And the look he has in his eye right now, I would assume he’s going to stay focused and keep playing at a high level.”
Tubelis and the rest of Arizona’s high-scoring cast — the Wildcats average 82.7 points, fifth nationally — will try to keep the momentum going against Princeton (21-8), which earned an automatic bid into the NCAAs by defeating Yale 74-65 in the title game of the Ivy League tournament. This is the Tigers’ first appearance in the Big Dance since 2017.
Arizona will have the edge up front with Tubelis and burly 7-footer Oumar Ballo (14.2 points, 8.5 rebounds per game), but Princeton rebounds well for its size. The 6-foot-8 Tosan Evbuomwan averages a team-high 15.0 points per game and is second in rebounding at 6.2. Caden Pierce pulls down 7.1 rebounds per game and has double-doubles in three consecutive games.
“We can match up with a very physical group,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “The way we play, we’re putting a lot of shooting on the floor, and it’s an unusual thing.”
Princeton has four players who have attempted more than 100 3-pointers, including Matt Allocco at 40.7 percent (44 of 108). The Tigers shot 34.4 percent as a team. Arizona can match and then some, hitting at 38.2 percent behind the arc.
A couple of injuries to watch for Arizona: Point guard Kerr Kriisa subluxed his right shoulder in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, and Ballo said he broke his left hand in Friday night’s semifinal. Kriisa’s shooting seemed affected at times, but he played the next two games with only two turnovers. Ballo had 13 points and eight rebounds in the title game against UCLA.
“So we’re just going to keep riding that out. I’m sure everybody has nagging injuries. I mean, it’s just that time of year,” Lloyd said. “We have a tough, resilient group. I think our guys love each other and love playing for each other, and if they have to endure a little bit of pain to do that, I think they’re willing to do that.”
Arizona and Princeton have played only once, on Dec. 27, 1985, in Tucson, Ariz. The Wildcats won 54-41.
–Field Level Media