Arizona losing by only seven points (69-62) against Mark Few’s deepest team in his Gonzaga’s years on a neutral court is something Sean Miller can build on with the Pac-12 season still a month away.
The 16th-ranked Wildcats (6-2) had no business keeping this game close at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. They trailed by five with 1:28 left after falling behind by 16 early in the second half. Three would-be contributors sat on the bench out of uniform.
“I was really pleased with our guys’ resiliency and effort in the second half,” Miller said in the postgame press conference. “I thought we fought hard.”
ESPN devoted a chunk of its broadcast showing the injured Ray Smith (retired from hoops with three ACL tears) and Parker Jackson-Cartwright (likely out at least a month with a high ankle sprain) and the ineligible Allonzo Trier (status unknown).
Former recruit Terrence Ferguson was in Australia honing his skills in the professional league there awaiting the NBA draft in about seven months.
About six months ago in early June, before Ferguson announced his intentions to go pro in Australia amid eligibility concerns, all four guys figured into Miller’s plans. None of them played against the Zags, yet there was Arizona two possessions down with less than two minutes left.
What did Arizona learn most of itself against No. 8 Gonzaga, which is now 8-0?
Arizona can climb its way out of this hole
On top of Arizona’s personnel issues, freshman sensation Lauri Markkanen had one of his most difficult performances, shooting 4 of 14 from the field. Fellow freshman Kobi Simmons had his worst game with two points on 1-of-9 shooting.
Markkanen and Simmons were a combined 5 of 23 from the field and Arizona had a chance to win with less than two minutes remaining?
“Our guys really fought back in the second half, beating them 36-31 and defending in the second half,” Arizona assistant coach Joe Pasternack said in the postgame radio show with Brian Jeffries on the Arizona IMG Network.
“I’m really proud of our kids’ effort with the adversity we’ve been going through.”
Alkins is the X-factor on the wing
With Smith gone and defenses concentrating heavily on Markkanen, the inside-outside player who can impact Arizona is freshman forward Rawle Alkins.
Alkins was a significant reason why the Wildcats made their comeback in the second half. As if Miller and his staff flipped a switch on him, Alkins had 12 points, six rebounds and a steal after halftime.
He brought energy to an Arizona team that looked like it had a hangover in the first half from Jackson-Cartwright’s ankle injury suffered Wednesday night against Texas Southern.
Miller lauded Alkins and Markkanen (who had 11 of his 14 points in the second half) saying, “they are coachable, they work hard and they are only going to get better.”
“If you can come to L.A. against a team as good as Gonzaga and feel good about your own performance, there’s a lot of upside in the rest of the year, for these guys,” Miller said looking at Alkins and Markkanen.
Alkins said of his effort in the second half: “You can never give up. You have to play hard on both ends of the floor. Rebounding, that’s something that we stress.”
He had five offensive rebounds that helped Arizona tally 11 second-chance points.
“We’re supposed to be rebounding every second on offense,” Alkins said. “When the shot goes up, my first instinct is to try to rebound the ball, and luckily the ball just dropped into my hands.”
Arizona out of sorts without a true point guard
Kadeem Allen can not be expected to handle Arizona’s point guard role on an extended basis with Jackson-Cartwright on the mend. It’s too much to ask of Allen, who came to Arizona from Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College as a scorer because of his ability to attack the basket and either shoot or draw the foul.
Arizona had only seven assists with 12 turnovers against Gonzaga. Allen fouled out with more turnovers (five) than field goals made (four).
Miller and the training staff will take their time with Jackson-Cartwright’s return because it’s more important for the junior point guard to be healthy by mid-February rather than rush him back in four weeks or so.
When Simmons committed to Arizona, recruiting gurus proclaimed he was more of a point guard than a shooting guard. They wrote he was recruited as well by Kentucky and Ohio State to play the point.
Simmons had one assist and two turnovers in 29 minutes against Gonzaga.
These December games are a good time for him to hone those point-guard skills before the Pac-12 season starts. Arizona has no other choice but to increase his role at that position to take the pressure off Allen somewhat.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.