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FIBA and transfer talent replenish Arizona basketball roster

Just a month ago, it was a wonder where the Arizona Wildcats would find enough bodies.

The answer lay overseas.

Since late April and through the first week of May, head coach Sean Miller bolstered the depth on his future roster with a swift series of international signings.

“I guess six years ago when I personally became involved with Team USA and USA Basketball and had my own experience with FIBA, I recognized not only the great talent that’s in the international game but the amazing skill level and coaching,” Miller told play-by-play man Brian Jeffries in an interview Thursday.

“I think there’s a number of players that come to us having played in international tournaments, playing with the 24-second shot clock, a deeper three-point line which is now our three-point line … we want to mix in the international brand of basketball whenever it makes sense for both them and us.”

Throughout the 37-minute breakdown of the projected 2020-21 roster, Miller emphasized the international players’ abilities to play in the pick-and-roll. He also spoke about their versatility that could have the Wildcats more than ever using three-guard lineups and interchanging players based on fit and matchup.

That was striking just because, a month back, Miller could hardly field a team at all.

Three potential NBA Draft picks are among a total of seven of Arizona’s top 10 rotation players that won’t return for the 2020-21 college basketball season. Miller had gained two four-star recruits, Phoenix-area product Dalen Terry and Canadian Ben Mathurin, and added transfers Jordan Brown (Nevada), James Akinjo (Georgetown) and Terrell Brown (Seattle) to the fold.

But with only guard Jemarl Baker, and bigs Ira Lee and Christian Koloko returning, that added up to just eight players.

That was until Arizona went on a streak of landing international commitments.

Estonian guard Kerr Kriisa (April 18), French big man Daniel Batcho (April 23) and Turkish forward Tibet Gorener (April 27) committed and joined Mathurian as players who fit the FIBA style of basketball.

Miller added that Arizona could even add “one or two more” foreign prospects by the time the season is expected to roll around.

For a program that has relied on McDonald’s All-Americans in the past and has most recently been in the news for its link to the college basketball scandal that was featured in an HBO documentary, that’s impressive. As of Friday, 247 Sports ranked the Wildcats’ 2020 recruiting class as seventh-best in the nation.

Here’s a quick rundown of highlights as Miller went through Arizona’s roster for 2020-21.

Key transfers

C Jordan Brown: The McDonald’s All-American was one of Arizona’s best practice players last season as he sat out due to transfer rules. Miller expected the 6-foot-11 big man to average double-digit pounts and be tough on the boards. He played in just 10 minutes per game in a season with Nevada in 2018-19.

PG/SG James Akinjo: Another transfer who practiced with NBA-hopeful guards Nico Mannion and Josh Green last year, Akinjo averaged 13.3 points and 4.4 assists per game in seven outings last year. He is eligible to return midseason.

G Terrell Brown: A Seattle grad transfer, Miller expects Brown to bring what last year’s grad transfer, Stone Gettings, did. The 6-foot-1 Brown put up 20.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game in 2019-20.

Returning players

G Jemarl Baker: A steady combo guard last year, Baker averaged 5.7 points and 2.3 assists a year ago and can play the 1-3 if Miller goes with three guards. Miller said a knee injury kept Baker at around 80% last year.

C Christian Koloko: The long 7-foot-1 freshman averaged 0.9 blocks per game in just 8.3 minutes played. Miller was hoping he could put 20 pounds on his 220-pound frame this offseason.

“My most frustrating part of COVID-19 is simply him because I know what being here, on our campus with (strength coach) Chris Rounds, the nutrition, the strength and conditioning program … he might be missing more than anybody.”

International/high school additions

Hillcrest Prep (Phoenix) G Dalen Terry: “To pigeonhole Dalen Terry as just a point guard, just a small forward, a two-guard, would be just really unfair. I believe this, he’s today’s version, the way the game is played, a guard. He can be that third guard where the No. 1 thing Dalen does well is he’s an excellent passer and he’s 6-foot-6. He’s a two-way player.”

Canadian G/F Ben Mathurin: “He finishes above the rim. I think he’s a very good shooter with a chance to be even better. From an athleticism perspective, he’s like a lot of guys that we’ve seen at Arizona who’ve played the wing position, Josh Green being one of them, that thrives in the open court, a high flier.”

French C/F Daniel Batcho: Miller clarified that Batcho’s end to last season was due to a knee-cap fracture an not a torn ACL.

“He had a fractured knee cap, which is much — I don’t want to say better injury — but structurally it’s certainly in a different ball game,” Miller said.

“He’s aggressive, I think he’s a good defensive rebounder. Again, adept at FIBA basketball where pick-and-roll and playing up and down and being able to defend pick-and-rolls, that’s something he’s been doing for years.”

Estonian PG/SG Kerr Kriisa: While Kriisa is a pure point guard, Miller said he can also play off the ball because of his shooting, something that could be necessary to earn playing time alongside the older transfers like Akinjo.

“Kerr is just an amazing play-maker,” Miller said. “If you watch him play in the variety of team tournaments with the different teams he plays on … he makes the right play. He loves to pass the ball. I love his ability to shoot. He is a deadly three-point shooter when left open.”

Turkish F Tibet Gorener: “I think you see a guy who’s highly skilled. He shoots the basketball … off the catch, off the move, really has a great feel for moving off the ball. I think when he gets bigger and stronger, physically, that’s when you’re going to see the best of Tibet.”