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Arizona's Christian Koloko jams home a bucket off an alley-oop during Tuesday night's 97-45 win over North Dakota State. The competition will get tougher for the Wildcats this weekend in Las Vegas.

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So who are the Arizona Wildcats, really?

Can they even come close to sustaining the absurd 94.0 points they averaged in their first three games this season? Are they really the most pass-happy team in the country, dishing assists for a nation-leading 74% of their shots? Can they keep teams anywhere near the sub-30%-shooting they have so far?

And, among the many individual questions, is Christian Koloko the best shot-blocker in Arizona history?

Definitive answers could start coming this weekend, when Arizona plays Wichita State and either UNLV or No. 4 Michigan in the Las Vegas Main Event. The Wildcats have only publicly surfaced so far for four games against completely overmatched opponents, including an exhibition against Eastern New Mexico.

Collectively, you can lump all those appearances into a preseason bucket. The real season arguably starts Friday, in the Wildcats’ bracketed Main Event game against Wichita State. The winner will face the winner of Friday’s other game between UNLV and Michigan, while the losers will also pair up for a consolation game Sunday.

“I think it will be fun to play against better teams, really good teams,” UA guard Bennedict Mathurin said. It will be in “a different state, different building and not in front of our fans, in front of different types of people.”

The Shockers apparently think it will be fun, too. After Wichita State completed a similar 3-0 blitz through their first week of the season on Tuesday, energetic reserve forward Monzy Jackson left reporters with this:

“Vegas, we coming,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

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Arizona guard Pelle Larsson goes to the floor to scoop up a loose ball in the win Tuesday. UA is averaging 94 points per game over its first three contests.

Of course, that sort of confidence is probably no surprise to Arizona fans who recall the 2016 NCAA Tournament, when Wichita State won a “First Four” game, then flew to Providence, Rhode Island, and eliminated the No. 6-seeded Wildcats 65-55 after UA had reached the Elite Eight the previous two seasons.

Power forward Ryan Anderson, now a UA graduate assistant, and center Kaleb Tarczewski each pulled down double-figure rebounds in that game but it was decided on the perimeter. The Shockers forced 19 Arizona turnovers and scored 22 points off them, with guard Fred VanVleet getting five steals.

“I remember Arizona being a big physical team at the four and five and throwing it inside a lot,” said Wichita State coach Isaac Brown, then a Shockers assistant coach. “I remember us trying to go inside and help. I thought we played well.”

Basically it was the sort of performance the Shockers have become known for.

“You guys know Wichita State,” Lloyd said. “Tough, blue collar, their players have chips on their shoulders, they fight. It’s going to be a physical battle. I think we’re built for that but it’s going to get tested.”

Having inherited almost the entire 2021-22 schedule, including the Main Event games, Lloyd had little say on whether three warm-up type games before a potentially rough neutral court situation was the best early-season plan.

But he’s rolling with it.

“Every year is different. Every team is different,” he said. “With this being my first year, it’s been a nice transition and I’ll probably give you a better answer Friday after the game on if it was the right thing or not. But it’s the next game on the schedule and I’m excited for it. Our guys are excited.”

Shock waves

Instead of keeping up their tradition, the Shockers could have easily started heading south a year ago. Former coach Gregg Marshall left Wichita State just before last season began after a report and subsequent internal investigation over allegations of verbal and physical abuse.

Brown took over on an interim basis but guided the Shockers to a 16-6 record and the American Athletic Conference title. He was a unanimous pick for conference coach of the year award and was rewarded after the season with a five-year contract worth $6 million.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity” from school officials, Brown said. “I’ve got a great staff. Couldn’t have got any of this done without those guys. Got some high-character kids who did the right things on and off the basketball court to help us win a championship.”

The way Brown described it, he knew it was possible early on last season.

“When I first took over the job,, we met with all our players and talked about which guys are going to stay, which guys were gonna opt out,” Brown said. “All those guys chose to stay and play. They came to Wichita State because of our rich basketball tradition.

“I’m just excited those guys stayed as a group. We had some high-character guys that took over the locker room even during losses early. That was a reason we were able to win a championship and I was able to keep this job.”

Etienne returns

Wichita State star guard Tyson Etienne returned to practice Wednesday and Brown said he will play Friday after missing the Shockers’ game on Tuesday against Tarleton State with an illness.

Etienne was the AAC’s co-player of the year last season while averaging 16.3 points and shooting 39.2% from 3-point range.

“He’s been good. He’s ready to go,” Brown said Thursday on a media call. “He felt a little sick the other day and didn’t play in the game, but he’s back 100%. He had a great practice and we’re expecting him to play.”

Contact sports reporter Bruce Pascoe at 573-4146 or bpascoe@tucson.com. On Twitter @brucepascoe

This article originally ran on tucson.com.

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