The Utes' blistering offense was having no trouble putting points on the board against Arizona's shoddy defense. Utah shot 60 percent in the first half and took an 11-point lead on the ninth-ranked Wildcats heading into halftime -- the largest halftime deficit that Arizona had faced all season.
Sean Miller, recognizing that an adjustment was necessary, mixed things up. That adjustment was in the form of a lineup change. Four of Arizona's five starters would return to the floor, but one would start the half on the bench. No, it wouldn't be a minor alteration, such as moving Parker Jackson-Cartwright to the bench in favor of Kadeem Allen or Gabe York being replaced by Mark Tollefsen, rather Miller opted to start a rarely-used freshman, Chance Comanche, in place of Ryan Anderson, a likely All-Pac-12 player.
Considering Comanche hadn't played in five of Arizona's last six games (due to a concussion and being out of the rotation) and Anderson often being seen as the team's most dominant player, it may have appeared to be a puzzling move, but Miller's reasoning for it was simple -- his team's defense needed to improve.
"Ryan has been a godsend for us," Miller said*. "His ability to score points and rebound, I think it’s easy to see he’ll be an all-conference player, but you have to be able to do it on the defensive end because there’s so many good players that rebound and score, but it’s negated because of their defense."
Anderson's first half performance was filled with defensive miscues. Whether it was being beaten off the dribble, not making the proper rotations, or failing to provide help defense, Anderson simply didn't show up on that end of the floor, and it was enough for Miller to bench him for the start of the second half.
"We’ve been on him for a long time," Miller said. "It hasn’t changed. He’s got to play better defense for our team to have a chance down the stretch of finishing strong. He knows that and that's the way it is."
But as the door closed for Anderson, it opened for Comanche. On Arizona's very first defensive possession of the second half, Comanche swatted Utah's star center, Jakob Poeltl. It would be a fitting beginning to what was a stellar second half performance by the freshman.
"I thought that Chance Comanche was really the silver lining today," Miller said. "We’ve been watching him develop throughout the year....when you give these young players an opportunity in a game like today with the stakes where it’s at, you learn a lot about them."
And we learned that Comanche is ready for more playing time.
Comanche played 11 minutes in the second half, made both of his field goal attempts, grabbed two rebounds, and, most importantly, provided the Wildcats with a defensive spark. He blocked two shots, used his 7-foot-2 wingspan to alter others and disrupt ball handlers, and guarded tightly on the perimeter.
"When he was in there, he just gave us more balance, more length, made things happen and just did a good job," Miller said. "I thought he gave us a boost we needed in the second half."
Comanche's playing time has been spotty in his freshman season, to say the least, but Miller acknowledged that he may have earned himself a permanent spot in the rotation with his strong performance.
"I think Chance is with us for the long haul," Miller said.
If so, the former four-star recruit will be added to an already strong front court trio of Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson, and Dusan Ristic, giving the Wildcats even more versatility than before.
"We can play him at either spot, the four and the five, and he can guard the four and five," Miller said.
Despite Comanche's effort, the Wildcats were unable to complete the second half comeback and we're swept on the road trip, but his emergence could prove to be a nice consolation prize.
"I think depth at this time of year is coveted," Miller said. "It’s priceless because you’re able to rest good players for three or four minutes and sometimes while they’re resting, play really well."
It obviously remains to be seen how much of an impact Comanche will have moving forward, but the most important part of the season is now here, and if Comanche can replicate what he did against Utah, he could very well become a significant piece to a potential late-season run.