TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Nicholls State tried to push Azuolas Tubelis around. The Arizona big man shoved back.
The Colonels backed off, only to watch him knife past them to the basket.
Stronger and tougher than last season, Tubelis is going to be awfully difficult to stop this year.
Tubelis scored 23 points and No. 17 Arizona shot a school-record 71.7% from the floor to begin its second season under coach Tommy Lloyd with a 117-75 rout of Nicholls State on Monday night.
“Zu scores easy,” Lloyd said. “He’s built to play in this system. He’s so great in the open court running, he’s getting really efficient inside. I really challenged him to improve his finishing. His numbers are good, but I think he can be great.”
The Wildcats won 33 games and went to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 last season, earning Lloyd national coach of the year honors.
Lloyd retooled his roster after losing three players to the NBA, adding several veteran transfers to go with a core of Tubelis, Kerr Kriisa, Oumar Ballo and Pelle Larsson.
The Wildcats hit the hardwood pounding, repeatedly working the ball inside to score or kick it out to open shooters against the Colonels. Ballo added 18 points, helping Arizona score 48 points in the paint against the reigning Southland Conference regular-season champions.
The Wildcats scored 16 straight points during a game-opening 30-4 run, went 11 of 18 from 3-point range and had 30 assists to win their 20th consecutive home game.
“For me, it’s really going to reinforce when we play with fundamentals and we play the right way, we can be really, really good,” Lloyd said. “If we get loose and not quite tough enough with the ball, we're succeptible.”
It started with Tubelis.
Lloyd wanted the big man from Lithuania to be tougher this season and he took it to heart — and to the Colonels.
Tubelis had 11 points and three assists in Arizona's big opening run, leaving Nicholls State and coach Austin Claunch struggling to find a way to stop him.
The 6-foot-11 forward used his added strength to bully the Colonels inside and his agility to go through them, scoring 20 points by halftime. He finished with seven rebounds and six assists.
Tubelis also helped anchor a big Arizona lineup that made it tough for Nicholls State to get any good early looks at the basket. The Colonels missed 13 of their first 14 shots before getting a few to fall.
Arizona led 59-37 at halftime.
“Zu was Zu. That’s the type of player he is,” said Arizona’s Pelle Larsson, who had 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. “Whenever the other team plays smaller, all he’s going to do is punish that guy.”
Micah Thomas led Nicholls State with 20 points.
Arizona was without guard Courtney Ramey after he was suspended for the first three games for participating in a non-certified pre-draft camp last spring.
When Kerr Kriisa picked up his third foul midway through the first half, Lloyd turned to freshman Kylan Boswell.
Lloyd had hoped to ease the 6-2 guard in this season after he broke his foot in the offseason, but had little choice with Ramey out and Kriisa in foul trouble.
Boswell handled the big stage of McKale Center well, playing with confidence to finish with eight points and five assists. He also had four turnovers.
“When you're coming from high school, it's really impressive how he's adapting,” Larsson said.
Arizona shared the ball well all night – maybe a little too much with the Colonels.
The Wildcats had numerous sloppy turnovers and finished with 24, leading to 28 Nicholls State points.
“There's definitely stuff we've got to clean up,” Lloyd said. “When you play a team like that, you can't be casual. Obviously, you saw when we weren't casual we were pretty efficient.”
Nicholls State had the worst possible start in one of college basketball's toughest road venues. The Colonels managed to put up a fight after the early gut punch, something that should help them once the Southland Conference schedule rolls around.
Arizona did what was expected, overwhelming Nicholls State early and dominating inside to win its 16th straight season opener.
Nicholls State plays at Wyoming on Wednesday.
Arizona hosts Southern on Friday.
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