By MIKE McCURRY
The idea of a must-win game in early December doesn’t really exist.
But if it did, that would be the situation Arizona found itself in on Saturday.
Going from the nation’s No. 2 team to out of the rankings entirely in the span of a week is bad enough.
But the thought of losing to UNLV—which would have been Arizona’s fourth loss in the last five games—with No. 9 Texas A&M and No. 24 Alabama on the docket?
That would have been insufferable.
Due to the heroics of Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton—arguably the best one-two punch in the country—that scenario does not have to play out for the Wildcats.
Trier (29) and Ayton (28) combined for 57 points, as each took turns taking over down the stretch to help Arizona rally from 13 points down and ultimately escape the Thomas & Mack Center with a 91-88 overtime win.
Here are plenty of thoughts from a game that even Urban Meyer would describe as nail-biting and entertaining.
Trier and Ayton won the game by not settling as much in the second half.
For as good a shooter as Trier is—his career three-point percentage is 38 percent—the preseason first-team All-American is at his best when attacking the rim.
After missing all four of his treys in the first half, he took just two the rest of the game, wisely electing to slash instead. The adjustment paid off, especially in overtime, when Trier scored 8 of Arizona’s 13 points by making 6-of-7 free throws.
Ayton, too, was over-reliant on his perimeter game early on. For as polished as his face-up game already is, Ayton did his best work closer to the basket against UNLV, using his footwork and ambidexterity to wreak havoc from the low block in the second half and overtime.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) December 3, 2017
Deandre Ayton vs. Brandon McCoy was hyped up, and rightfully so.
Per ESPN’s 2018 NBA Draft prospect rankings, Ayton is No. 3 and McCoy is No. 34. Saturday provided a dreamy matchup for NBA personnel between two freshmen who happen to be good friends—they lived together over the summer while playing for the California Supreme on the EYBL circuit.
The showdown more than lived up to the billing.
Ayton had a career-high 28 points plus 10 rebounds and 3 blocks.
McCoy had a career-high 33 points and also ripped down 10 boards, though he arrived at those gaudy totals much differently.
Whereas Ayton scored in every way imaginable from everywhere on the floor, McCoy set up his workspace in the restricted area. The 7-foot, 250-pound Chicago native does most of the dirty work early, carving out space in the paint to get excellent post position. He makes himself available and finds the open spot on the floor.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) December 3, 2017
McCoy reaped the benefits of Arizona’s many defensive breakdowns, receiving plenty of dump-offs and lobs. He’s now averaging 20.4 points and 11.9 rebounds thru eight games.
Arizona’s defense has nowhere to go but up.
Meet the 2017 Arizona Wilcats.
The “D” is nonexistent, you see.
The 2017 Arizona Wilcats (no D). This is atrocious on so many levels. These were back-to-back possessions, mind you. pic.twitter.com/moGqCAlw9n
— Mike McCurry (@Mike_McCurry16) December 3, 2017
Arizona currently ranks 49th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. That would be the worst mark for Sean Miller’s Pack Line defense since the 2010-2011 season.
Frankly, I’m not even sure where to begin on Arizona’s defensive struggles.
Their transition defense is abominable. Their half-court defense isn’t much better. There’s no resistance whatsoever for opposing slashers on the way to the rim. Arizona over-helps, their rotations are a step too slow, and they illustrate exactly what NOT to do in pick-and-rolls.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Arizona’s 5-foot-11, 170-pound guard, is too fragile at the point of attack. Trier can’t cover a corpse. Ayton is overaggressive when hedging ball screens, but at least he’s able to recover at times with his agility and quickness, characteristics that Dusan Ristic does not possess. Arizona lacks a defensive stopper in the mold of T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson, or Kadeem Allen. Kobi Simmons and Chance Comanche look like underrated losses from last season’s team now, too.
I mean, besides all that, Arizona’s defense is fine.
What’s the solution?
I’m not sure there is one.
Although I think Miller finally came to the realization that Ayton and Ristic cannot be on the floor together. Ristic played just eight minutes after halftime, as Miller went to a smaller, more athletic defensive lineup by rotating freshman Ira Lee (who played a season-high 22 minutes) and Keanu Pinder at the 4.
The return of Rawle Alkins should help. Alkins is a week or so away from making his sophomore debut after breaking his right foot in September. But he alone won’t stop the bleeding.
Remember, Arizona is super young. Five of the ten Wildcats who saw action versus UNLV are freshmen. Just like Rome isn’t built overnight, Pack Line principles aren’t mastered in eight games.
Miller is one of the best defensive tacticians in the sport. Arizona’s defense isn’t going to be this bad all season.
Though it’s hard to believe the Wildcats are ever going to reach the point of a championship-caliber defense.
Arizona has been thru the rigors, despite the calendar just flipping to December.
This is not to make excuses for Arizona’s disappointing 5-3 start in a season that, fair or not, has Final Four-or-bust expectations.
But, in the span of a few months, the Wildcats have experienced a lifetime’s worth of turmoil.
Where to begin?
In August, the team was in Barcelona when a terrorist attack occurred. Arizona is at the center of the FBI investigation into the corruption of college basketball; thus far, the repercussions have consisted of assistant coach Emanuel Richardson getting arrested and 2018 top recruit Jahvon Quinerly decommitting. Then, after a last-place finish in the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Wildcats became the first Top-10 team to fall out of the rankings the following week since Louisville in 1986-87.
Did I mention it’s December 3rd?
UNLV will finish better than 6th in the Mountain West Conference.
Which is where the Runnin’ Rebels are projected to wind up. UNLV still has a ways to go—they turn the ball over at an alarming rate, and poor late-game execution and shot selection led to them blowing a 13-point lead in a game they probably should have won, but you can absolutely talk yourself into this team surprising plenty of folks in the MWC.
I already mentioned McCoy. He’s paired in the frontcourt with Shakur Juiston, the reigning National JUCO Player of the Year whose 100 rebounds this season rank 2nd nationally, trailing only some fellow at Duke named Marvin Bagley. Point guard Jordan Johnson is putting up 13.6 points and 7.8 assists after transferring from Milwaukee. And, as evident on Saturday, Thomas & Mack Center is once again becoming a lit environment.
Head coach Marvin Menzies is on the right track, and he has a really fun group to coach in his second year on the job.
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