Just two weeks ago, things looked very bleak for the Arizona Wildcats. They were swept by the Los Angeles schools and lost leading-scorer Allonzo Trier for 4-6 weeks in the process. It marked the first time the Wildcats had lost two games in a row since the 2012-2013 season, and they unfamiliarly held a conference record under .500.
The team's defense, which has been inconsistent all season, was shredded in both losses, and now without Trier, it was assumed the team's strength -- its offense -- would understandably take a step back as well.
That would not be the case.
The Wildcats returned to the friendly confines of McKale Center and thoroughly dominated the Washington schools. They scored 90-plus points in both games, won by a combined 56 points, and now sit near the top of the conference standings once again.
To get a result like that, the team needed others to step up, and that's exactly what happened. Mark Tollefsen slid into Trier's small forward spot and played tremendously, but it was Parker Jackson-Cartwright's improved play that stood out the most.
"I thought the story of this weekend was Parker," Sean Miller said. "He played the best basketball of his career in back-to-back games."
Jackson-Cartwright emerged from a season-long struggle to become the maestro of the team's lethal offensive attack. Against Washington, he didn't have a made field goal, but dished out 11 assists, while only turning the ball over once. Then against Washington State, he had 13 points and seven assists, and again, took care of the basketball with just two turnovers.
"18 assists and three turnovers. That’s phenomenal," Miller said about Jackson-Cartwright's impressive weekend. "His unselfishness and his vision and sharing the ball really became contagious."
"I mean, that’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright for you," Mark Tollefsen said. "That’s what he does... He’s one of the best faciliators we got, if not the best, so I feel so comfortable with him out there, because I know he’s going to make the right play."
Indeed. To Miller's surprise, Arizona's offense never looked better. The Wildcats shot 61% from the field against the Huskies, and 54% from the field against the Cougars. Jackson-Cartwright was pushing the ball ahead in transition for easy baskets, and was slicing up the defense in the half court.
Equally as important, he was able to get his jumpers to fall. Jackson-Cartwright shot the ball well as a freshman -- hitting 39.1% of his three-point attempts -- but it hadn't yet carried over to his sophomore season just yet.
But that's quickly changing.
His three-point percentage for the season is still just 28.6%, but he shot 3-6 from three-point land against the Washington schools and is 6-13 from that range since conference play started. It's quite the improvement since the start of the season, but it was only a matter of time.
"We believe in him, he believes in himself, and it’s great to see him have that confidence," Miller said. "I’ve watched Parker shoot a lot of basketballs this offseason and I’ve stayed steadfast in my support that he’s a really good shooter, and it’s starting to show; he is."
"My teammates and the coaching staff have really given me a lot of confidence," Jackson-Cartwright said. "They never count me out, and it just makes me feel good to come out in practice and in games and try to play well. So, I never keep down on myself or count myself out."
"I sensed Parker left that road trip with a chip on his shoulder to get back to being the point guard that he is, the player that he can be, and he was that this weekend," Miller said. "I’ve noticed, ever since we’ve returned from Los Angeles, just a renewed sense about him, how he's practiced. He has a real purpose and and he’s a big part of our team."
There's also the notion that Jackson-Cartwright is improving because he's now fully adjusted to the college game.
Though he's a sophomore, PJC wasn't asked, nor required, to do much as a freshman. He had a very limited role as T.J. McConnell's backup and now that he has an increased role for the first time, he was simply experiencing the growing pains that go along with it.
"He’s a smaller guy playing at a very high level of college basketball. There’s an adjustment period," Miller said. "But I believe he’s through that adjustment period. If you look at his career, he has one season under his belt where he was T.J.’s backup, had a really good offseason, and now he has that first semester behind him."
Those were Miller's reasons for Parker's uptick in production, but for Jackson-Cartwright, the answer is simple.
"I think I found my rhythm in the past two games, and my teammates have done a good job of finding me," he said.
And what a time to find it.
"When you think about who we don’t have, our guards playing well is paramount for us," Miller said. "He really stepped up in Allonzo’s absence. He took his game to the next level."
Now it's time to see if it continues as Miller anticipates.