LAS VEGAS — The door swung open to Dressing Room 7 at T-Mobile Arena Thursday afternoon, and Arizona’s national title hopes came out in a wheelchair.
Point guard Kerr Kriisa, the engine of the 29–3 Wildcats’ fast and furious offense, was the passenger. He was being pushed by student manager Anderson Mort. Kriisa’s right foot was encased in a black boot and covered with a Gatorade towel. The 21-year-old Estonian was still wearing his No. 25 white uniform and white headband.
Kriisa appeared to be FaceTiming with someone as Mort navigated the hallways out of the arena. Squeezing through a door, they went outside into the windy, sunny Las Vegas afternoon and headed for the team bus idling nearby.
Positioning the wheelchair alongside the bus, Mort transitioned from pilot to photographer. He set down Kriisa’s pink Nike low-cut sneakers and his duffel bag to snap a quick pic of Kriisa giving two thumbs up, with head student manager Luke Handley also sticking a thumb in the air. Kriisa posted the picture on Twitter with the caption, “Watch us win it all. Bear Down. Go Cats.”
Then Mort and Handley helped Kriisa out of the chair and up the steps of the bus, with the guard putting no weight on his right foot. He dropped into the first seat behind the driver. After quick phone consultation, Arizona got clearance to keep the wheelchair for the time being and loaded it into the underneath luggage space.
The looming question is how long Kriisa will need to use the wheelchair, or crutches, or a walking boot, or whatever.
Basketball players leap and land countless times during the course of the season, a routine action that always carries an underlying risk. A team’s fate can be altered by a bad landing in March—ask Cincinnati in 2000, when Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the conference tournament and scuttled the No. 1 Bearcats’ title hopes. We’ll see whether Arizona’s season suffered a similar twist.
Kriisa crumpled to the floor with 32 seconds left in Arizona’s Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal against Stanford, taking the air out of a thrilling game that the Wildcats won 84–80. Kriisa slapped the hardwood in pain, his body positioned awkwardly, as Arizona medical staff attended to him. After being helped up, he limped out of the floor area without putting weight on his right leg.
Shortly after the game, Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd characterized the injury as “a sprained ankle of some sort. I have no idea the severity of it.” At the very least, Kriisa would seem highly doubtful to play Friday night in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals and probably not in a potential championship game Saturday night—why push it, with Arizona’s NCAA Tournament bid locked up and a No. 1 seed also seemingly secured?
The bigger question, of course, is next week. Will a guy leading the Wildcats in assists (4.9) and three-pointers (78) be ready for the NCAA Tournament? And if he does play, will he be 100%?
Arizona has sufficient talent to beat a No. 16 seed without Kriisa. After that, it would be difficult. The Wildcats are the fourth-fastest team in the country in offensive tempo, according to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, and lead the nation in assists per field goal made. Both of those attributes start with Kriisa. He posted a triple-double against Utah last month. He’s only committed one turnover in March.
He’s good. And valuable.
“Kerr means a lot to the team,” said leading scorer Ben Mathurin. “He’s a starting point guard and he has a great impact on the team. And we play well when he’s here. Whatever happens will happen, but we hope he’s going to be back pretty soon because we need him.”
In a fairly wide-open years, Arizona is one of eight to 12 teams with a legitimate chance to win the national title—and, truth be told, the Wildcats are near the front of that list. But taking out a key piece at this point would put a lot of stress on a young team with scant postseason experience.
That’s one reason why this Pac-12 tournament is valuable for Arizona—so few of its players have any experience playing tournament basketball as collegians. But that experience might not be worth the cost, if Kriisa is out (or compromised) for the Big Dance.
If need be, the Wildcats do have a sixth-year player who can play the point in Justin Kier. He spent four seasons at George Mason and one at Georgia before matriculating to Arizona this season, where he’s been a productive member of the eight-man rotation. Kier is more of an inside-the-arc player than Kriisa, who has attempted just six two-point shots in the last nine games. If need be after Kier, Dalen Terry and Pelle Larsson can probably give Lloyd some minutes at point guard as well.
For Arizona fans, this unexpected joy ride of a season now is suffused with anxiety. It’s been 25 years since the Wildcats’ one and only national championship, and 21 since their last Final Four. Some of that drought has been self-inflicted.
The program was under an FBI and NCAA enforcement microscope for more than four years after being embroiled in the federal investigation of corruption in college basketball. Former assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson accepted a guilty plea and served three months in prison for his role. Former head coach Sean Miller was fired last year.
This season was the exit from that dark tunnel. Under first-year coach Lloyd, who brought the winning formula with him from two decades as an assistant at Gonzaga, Arizona burst back into the spotlight. Lloyd inherited a lot of talent, much of it foreign, and quickly maximized it. Mathurin blossomed into a star and likely high draft pick. The 7’1” Christian Koloko dropped a career-high 24 points on Stanford. Fellow big man Ąžuolas Tubelis can go for 20 on any given night.
On paper and in person, Arizona looks the part of a national championship contender. The Wildcats have size, athleticism, shooters, defenders, and sufficient depth.
Or at least they did have all those things. If Kerr Kriisa can’t get back to his fast and creative best, the Wildcats will be a different team—not eliminated from contention, but diminished.
The thumbs up picture was a nice message from Kriisa to the Arizona fans. But the sight of him doing it from a wheelchair will be one that could haunt them for a long time.
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