Arizona is 22-3 overall and 11-1 in the Pac-12 Conference. They are still considered one of the best teams in the country with some of the best collective talent in the college game. That’s the good news.
The bad news? Well, there is some bad news. They aren’t playing like it. And not just because Stanford played close to the Cats on Thursday night – 74-67 – in McKale Center, but over the last 2 1/2 weeks Arizona hasn’t looked like the team many of the so-called experts said were capable of making it to the Final Four.
By the way, there are no such things as experts.
Still, what a difference a couple of weeks make. That said, Arizona will be OK – it just depends on what OK means. Will it return to form before Allonzo Trier returned to the team after 19 games or will it continue to struggle like it has since its emotional win over UCLA nearly three weeks ago?
What we do know is: Every. Game. Matters.
Sean Miller already issued a warning for Saturday. California “is the type of team that can come in here and just smash us all over the floor.”
Buckle up. It’s going to be a crazy ride the rest of the way.
Here are three things that are glaring about the Cats.
What has happened to Markkanen?
Just a couple of weeks ago, Lauri Markkanen was being lauded as one of the best 3-point shooters to ever play for Arizona. Well, he has found himself in tough stretch here from the floor. In the last three games, he’s gone 4 for 20. In the last four games, he’s hit just 5 for 17 from beyond the arc.
Figure that he was hitting better than 50 percent before this slump.
“It happens,” said teammate Allonzo Trier, talking about Markkanen’s bad stretch.
“I don’t know any player who hasn’t had a streak where they haven’t shot the ball great. Because he shot it so well and then he doesn’t shoot it spectacularly you guys (media) act like it’s the end of the world. But it’s not. It’s not to say he won’t come out on Saturday and have a big game. And it doesn’t mean we won’t stop going to him. We believe in him. We will be just fine.”
To Markkanen’s credit, he did have a big 3-pointer near the end of the game to put UA up by three.
Miller said Wednesday night was the first night where he felt Markkanen’s confidence was a bit shaky. Miller said the 3-pointer near the end of the game should help with his big man’s confidence moving forward.
“Lauri is going to get out of it,” Miller said. He added that he’ll have to do other things like rebound. He had just three rebounds against Stanford.
“He has shown he can rebound. Him rebounding on Saturday has to happen,” Miller said.
Miller insisted that Markkanen will get through this.
“He’s affected right now,” Miller said, adding that two missed free throws proved that. “I have no doubt he will snap out of it. He’s too good of a player. His work ethic is too good. We have to help him. We have to be able to get him the ball.”
Allonzo is a starter once again
It took all of six games for Trier to return to the starting lineup after missing the first 19. He replaced freshman Kobi Simmons, who was said to be fine with it, inasmuch as all he wants to do is win.
Trier finished with 22 points, five shy of his career high. He hit his first three shots but was stuck on 10 points for most of the first half. Did starting help his rhythm?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Coach made the adjustment. I just do what I’m told. If I’m told to start, I’ll start. If I’m told to come off the bench I will come off the bench. Coach is trying to do what’s best for the team. I’m trying to do the same thing as well. I’ll play wherever I’m needed.”
Six games into his return, it’s very clear and apparent Arizona is still trying to adjust to his presence.
“Usually the guys have had a few exhibition games and a few regular season games by now so I’m just getting going and doing my best,” Trier said. “Each game is more helpful and allows me to get more comfortable with my teammates. I will just continue to stay with it, keep trying to improve.”
And then there was Miller’s rant
When Miller talks and is upset or concerned about his team’s play, you know you’re going to get good stuff. He doesn’t pull punches when he’s upset.
He didn’t disappoint. First his thoughts on his team’s defense on the perimeter:
“You have to guard the ball, you have to be able to guard the dribble,” Miller said. “Those two things let us down badly … second shots and off the dribble. There will be a couple of guys you are not going to see in the game (in the future). I’m not putting them in the game if they cannot guard the man in front of them. Same thing for rebounding the ball.”
Arizona, once considered a team on the rise because of its defense and rebounding, is now a team with a questionable defense.
“The word pro is thrown around too much at Arizona because of the great history of our program,” Miller said. “We have guys who think they are NBA players but they can’t guard the ball. Not only are you not getting picked but you are not getting invited to camp. Nobody is going to take a chance on a guy who can’t guard the guy in front.
“Just because Richard Jefferson got picked doesn’t mean you’re going to get picked. You have to earn it every game, every day. We’ve built up a lot of equity in the way we have played (to this point) but the effort level and (being irresponsible) from guys who can’t rebound leaves us vulnerable.”
Then there was the team’s rebounding, even though it won the battle 35-30. It did give up 17 second-chance points and was outscored in the paint 42-16.
“Everyone knows how to block out and everyone knows how to work at that and if you just turn and look you’re not going to play,” Miller said. “Eventually that’s going to break us or repair us. But we’re not going to go down a good path when you’re not rebounding the ball.”