The No. 23 Arizona Wildcats defeated the Washington State Cougars, 79-64, in Pullman Wednesday night to improve to 18-5 overall and 6-4 in the Pac-12 Conference. Ryan Anderson led the way for the Wildcats, scoring a career-high 31 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
Here's what we learned in the Wildcats' win:
Parker Jackson-Cartwright stepped up when needed
Jackson-Cartwright has been a mystery this season. He'll have a stretch of games where he looks like a high-level Pac-12 point guard -- like against the Washington schools in January -- but then he'll follow it up with a performance or two where he looks like he shouldn't even be on the court, such as his stint against the Bay Area schools.
Well, this was a game where he looked like he belonged out there...and more. And with Kadeem Allen being under the weather and fouling out in just seven minutes on the court, it was needed.
Arizona's offense struggled to get anything going at the beginning of game, as they started 4-16 from the field, but from that point, Jackson-Cartwright did a nice job of orchestrating the offense. He had a good feel of when and when not to push the ball, while also knifing through the defense and setting up his teammates in the process. He had four assists -- it probably should've been more than that -- and he didn't turn over the ball a single time, something that is incredibly important for this team.
And it wasn't like his assists came on easy plays. He hit Justin Simon on a back-cut for a reverse layup, Ryan Anderson on a wrap-around pass, and this no-look pass to Anderson for a thunderous slam:
Miller said Saturday, after the win against Oregon State, that the team seems to play its best when Jackson-Cartwright plays well, and it's hard to disagree with that.
Ryan Anderson has improved his offensive game
Anderson has been a scoring-machine all season, but lately he's been even more potent on the offensive end. In his last three games, he's averaging 22 points per game, while shooting 24-33 from the field. He's done most of his damage on the offensive glass this season, but in this game (and recently as a whole) he scored in a variety of ways. He scored with his back to the basket via a jump-hook or drop-step in the low post, he faced up and scored off the dribble or with a jumper, and yes, still had a number of put-backs.
He's become a player that you can throw the ball to and have him go get you a bucket when needed. Earlier in the season, that wasn't necessarily the case, and we can thank assistant coach Mark Phelps for helping it happen.
"I really credit coach Phelps. He works a lot on our big guys," Anderson told Pac-12 Network. "He really challenged me about three weeks ago to be more assertive and to be detailed in my approach to the game, really take my time. I think we have a great front court in general and he just told us when we get the ball down there to take our time. If they're crowding us, if they're double-teaming us, if they're playing single coverage, just read that and make the right decision."
With Anderson playing the type of basketball that he is and Allonzo Trier returning any day now, Arizona could have a 1-2 punch that's as good as anyone's heading into March Madness.
Arizona handles adversity well
It's safe to say that the Wildcats have been put in difficult situations all season.
Before the season even started, Ray Smith tore his ACL and was declared out for the year. Kaleb Tarczewski dealt with an ankle injury in the preseason, then broke his foot and missed a month of the non-conference season. He returned and then shortly after, Allonzo Trier broke his hand and has yet to return. Elliott Pitts has missed most of the season due to "personal reasons".
And against Washington State, Kadeem Allen was limited due to an illness. Parker Jackson-Cartwright was shifted into the starting lineup as a result, and he fared well.
That's been a theme this season -- there's been one roadblock after another, but the team has handled them quite well. Sure, the Wildcats had their 49-game winning streak in McKale Center snapped, and sit in the middle of the pack in the conference, but things could be much worse. Arizona still has a chance to win the Pac-12, and more importantly, has a chance to make a run in March.
If you recall, the 1997 championship team went through similar adversity -- Miles Simon was suspended for the fall semester and missed the first 11 games of the season (thrusting Jason Terry into a larger role). That team also finished just fifth in the conference and lost nine games, similar to the position the current team is in.
It definitely wasn't a team that people were pegging to be a championship team. Yet, they managed to play their best basketball when it mattered most, and the rest is history.
Now, will the current team peak at the right time? Obviously, it remains to be seen. But I do believe that -- if healthy -- this team is just as capable as any to make a deep run in the tournament. Who knows, maybe the adversity will help this team in the long-run as it did with the '97 team.