Stoic Tubelis leads No. 8 Arizona back to March Madness

Azuolas Tubelis’ face doesn’t betray much emotion.

A slight eyebrow raise, a barely noticeable smirk at the corner of the mouth, a quick side eye — that’s about all you’re going to get from Arizona’s big man.

The outward stoicism belies a wry sense of humor rarely seen by anyone outside the program or his family.

Or does it?

"Azuolas makes us laugh and makes us smile, and he does it in a way that if you didn’t know him you’d wonder: is he joking?" Arizona associate head coach Jack Murphy said. "And that makes it all the funnier."

Tubelis carries the same countenance onto the basketball court. Still, opponents have no trouble discerning his intentions.

The 6-foot-11 junior forward from Lithuania has become a dominant force for No. 8 Arizona, a player who can go around, through or sprint past defenders.

Led by Tubelis and 7-footer Oumar Ballo, Arizona won the Pac-12 Tournament last week and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region. The Wildcats open against Princeton on Thursday in Sacramento, California, in their bid to make a second straight deep March run under coach Tommy Lloyd.

"Zu doesn’t show a lot of emotion, he’s not a talkative person, but he’s a baller," Ballo said. "He comes in every single day, does his job. He doesn’t need to talk much."

Tubelis arrived in Tucson with his brother Tautvilas as a thin athletic big man with a high skill level and deft touch. He averaged 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds as a freshman, increasing his scoring average to 13.9 points last season.

After Arizona got manhandled by Houston in the Sweet 16 last season, Lloyd implored his players to add toughness.

Tubelis took it to heart.

Instead of heading back to Lithuania to play for his national team, Tubelis spent most of last summer in Tucson. He worked with Arizona’s coaches for eight weeks and spent a couple more working out with his brother, adding strength while learning to play through more contact around the rim.

The result: Tubelis averaged 19.8 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 57% from the floor this season.

"He’s one of those guys who’s just a gamer, where he shows up and can perform," Murphy said. "This year he’s had a much more focused work ethic, taking reps and drills more serious. And you’ve seen the results. He’s playing at a high, high level."

A high rate of speed, too.

When Lloyd arrived at Arizona from Gonzaga, he pushed his big men to push themselves down the court as fast as they could. Tubelis heeded that advice, chugging down the floor as soon as Arizona gets the ball back, sometimes even on made baskets.

Tubelis’ sprint outs put constant pressure on opposing defenses, creating easy baskets in transition and matchup problems since it’s usually only guards who can keep up with him. Even if he doesn’t get the ball, Tubelis’ quickness into the offensive zone forces the defense to overreact, often setting up the Wildcats for open 3-pointers in transition.

On the break, Tubelis does things that defy his size.

A sturdy 245 pounds, he has soft hands and incredible body control, often contorting midair to not only catch the ball but put it in the basket in one motion on passes that appear to be headed out of bounds.

"I don’t know if that’s hand-eye coordination, obviously speed, quickness," Murphy said. "I don’t know what sense it is, but he’s on that different level."

Just don’t expect him to get excited about it, at least outwardly.

When Tubelis scored 40 points against Oregon on Feb. 2, most by an Arizona player in 28 years, his postgame reaction was subdued, to say the least.

"Shots went in, I scored a lot of points and you have to give credit to my teammates," Tubelis said, drawing a snicker from teammate Kerr Kriisa.

Tubelis’ teammates see a different side of him away from the public eye, though it may not be a whole lot different than what everyone else observes.

"He gets very excited when we win at Fortnite," Kriisa said. "Then you can hear when he’s letting it out. But Zu is Zu. Let’s not act like he’s not giving out emotions. His emotions are different. He’s like playing it cool, making some faces, being cool."

And quietly dominating.