With foul trouble mounting for his team, Arizona coach Sean Miller went into a zone. Literally.
Arizona fans had to rub their eyes a few times to believe what they saw: A 2-3 zone defense from Miller, known for his extreme dependence on man-to-man defenses? This was not the Twilight Zone but close to it for those who follow the program.
“Working on it, and using it at an appropriate time, that’s probably what we’ll do,” Miller said of the zone defense, of which he resorted to because he sensed Arizona’s available seven scholarship players were “wearing down.”
The first play out of the 2-3 zone was a steal by Kadeem Allen with 15:31 left against Cal-Irvine that resulted in a 3-point shot by Kobi Simmons. Miller went back to a man-to-man defense shortly thereafter but he finished with the zone in the last couple of minutes with four walk-ons on the the court.
The 79-57 convincing win over Cal-Irvine, a team considered a challenger for the Big West title this season, increased Arizona’s win streak at McKale Center against non-conference opponents to 38.
The 20th-ranked Wildcats (7-2) next head to Missouri (5-3) on Saturday at 10 a.m. Tucson time. It is Arizona’s first true road game of the season.
Foul trouble will be a serious concern going into what could be a hostile arena, with three freshmen tasting that kind of atmosphere for the first time at the college level.
“It’s all about survival,” Miller said of that game and the three other non-conference games remaining.
Time will tell how good (or bad) the Anteaters will become, but a win coming off a loss against No. 8 Gonzaga last Saturday in Los Angeles is what Miller’s short-handed team needed before heading to Missouri.
The seven active scholarship players — and walk-on guard Tyler Trillo with 13 minutes — were efficient against Irvine, limiting the Anteaters to 38.2 percent shooting from the field and 20 percent (4 of 20) from 3-point range.
Arizona, meanwhile, overcame its foul problems (with Rawle Alkins playing with four fouls extensively and Chance Comanche fouling out) by shooting 53.1 percent from the field. The Wildcats’ “European Connection”, as Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic want to be called, made a combined 15 of 21 shots from the field for 36 points.
What did we learn most from Arizona’s performance?
Arizona was in a zone in more ways than one
The Wildcats not only utilized a 2-3 zone defense on a couple of occasions, they attacked Irvine’s 2-3 set with more efficiency than what has been seen by a Miller-coached team against such a defense.
Arizona made 8 of 17 shots from 3-point range and the Wildcats — without injured junior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright — broke down the Anteaters’ zone with a season-high 22 assists. They had only four turnovers in the first half before finishing with 13.
The Wildcats’ three starting perimeter players — Allen, Alkins and Kobi Simmons — had a combined 17 assists with only six turnovers against what Miller called Irvine’s “excellent defense” coming into the game.
“Part of the deal against the zone, sometimes the big guys are invisible because the guards can’t get the ball to them,” he said. “Tonight, our guards did a great job getting the ball to the middle and the low post and we delivered when we had that chance.”
Sean Miller on takeaways from Gonzaga going into Tuesday: Said team played more "organized" and guards did a good job finding the bigs. pic.twitter.com/PGmmBaHVWS
Alkins coming of age?
After being the catalyst in Arizona’s comeback against Gonzaga in the second half, Alkins continued his production at a good rate. He finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists, playing much of the game in foul trouble.
He also went to the free-throw line the most (nine times) showing his assertive style. He made six of those free throws. Arizona was 15 of 18 from the stripe after suffering from there against Gonzaga going 17 of 26 in the 69-62 loss.
Alkins has reached double-figure scoring in his last three games (14 against Texas Southern, 16 against Gonzaga and 14 against Irvine). If he keeps that up, it will free up Markkanen for more opportunities because his scoring will keep defenses honest.
Who was that walk-on?
Miller played walk-on guard Tyler Trillo for 13 minutes against the Anteaters and he was in the flow of Arizona’s offense, which means he did not stick out like a sore thumb.
“Sometimes it’s best for a walk-on to be invisible, which means nothing wrong is happening,” Miller said in the postgame radio show on IMG. “From there, you gain confidence and try to make plays.”
Get this: Trillo’s playing time against Irvine was about one-quarter of the 53 minutes he played in 14 games as a walk-on with Roger Williams University in Providence, R.I., two seasons ago. It was also one minute shy of his career-high of 14 against Nichols on Jan 31, 2015. Trillo matched his career-high of two assists (no turnovers) that was achieved in that game against Nichols as well.
It’s a long way from riding the pine in Division III.
“He takes care of the ball,” Miller said of Trillo. “He knows his role.”
Sean Miller says Tyler Trillo is the eighth man
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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.