As happy as Sean Miller is to get Rawle Alkins back from a foot injury, it does make his job more difficult in the coming weeks.
“Tonight’s hard,” Miller said after Arizona beat Alabama 88-82 on Saturday. “We dealt with this last year. You welcome back a guy that hasn’t played and everybody is excited. The team is excited, Rawle is excited, but everything is different.”
The Arizona Wildcats are returning one of their top players, one who can help solve the team’s early-season woes, but they also have to determine whose playing time Alkins will take.
On Saturday, it was Dylan Smith and Alex Barcello.
Alkins played 22 minutes in his return while Smith, coming off his best performance of the season, played just one minute while Barcello played three.
Meanwhile, Keanu Pinder played just four minutes and Emmanuel Akot, who is dealing with knee tendinitis, continues to be glued to the bench.
But Miller told his team after the game that the rotation is fluid.
“We have to continue to figure this out,” he said. “It takes a little bit of time. We went through that with Allonzo last year. So those guys will all settle in and they have to earn it in practice. It keeps things competitive because the guys that are going to play are going to be the guy that do their job everyday and are giving us the things that we need to be the best team that we can be.”
Still, Miller admitted that not everyone will play once Alkins is fully reincorporated into the rotation.
“There’s a fine line,” he said. “This is the University of Arizona. Not everybody gets to start and play. And some of the greatest players who played in our program never played as a freshman or weren’t nearly the player they became but they fought and they earned what they got and they learned what they needed to get better.
“Sometimes at 19 years old, you’re not as ready as you’re gonna be at 20 or 21 so with a program like ours you want to keep these guys practicing and getting ready. We have a number of players a year from now that could be our leading scorer or one of our best players or a starter, and on this year’s team maybe they don’t play as much.
“But our focus has to be on winning and being the best team that we can be. And when nothing is given and you have to earn it, the cream will rise to the top. Sometimes a guy panics, or their support system panics, and they run, but very seldom does a guy who runs make it. But we’re counting on everybody and you can’t judge just on today because of the circumstances, but I think it will even out over time.”
Alkins had seven points, three assists, and two rebounds on 2-6 shooting Saturday.
“I wasn’t trying to do too much. I was just trying to just get by and see what was there and take what the defense was giving me,” he said. “I’m a little rusty as you can see my shot wasn’t falling too much, but over time that’s going to get better.”
One guy who does not appear in danger of losing minutes to Alkins is Brandon Randolph.
The freshman tallied 13 points, three rebounds, two assists, and zero turnovers Saturday. Randolph was 3-5 from 3 and 5-10 overall.
He has scored in double figures in four of the last five games.
“He has really settled into to being a dependable scorer. He’s made big shots. He did it at UNLV, did it against Texas A&M, did it again tonight,” Miller said.
“He’s doing it against some really good programs and he’s young. He’s one of these young guys that I’m talking about that I think you when you watch him in January and February, he’s going to be that much better, that much more sure of himself. He’s becoming more and more dependable and he’s improving on defense.”
Akot’s first DNP
Akot picked up his first DNP of the season Saturday, as he continues to battle knee tendinitis.
“He wasn’t able to play tonight, but that doesn’t mean he won’t play in the next game,” Miller said. “I think it’s up to him to make it happen."
Akot has played just 10 minutes in the last four games, and that last quote by Miller makes it sound like he would not be in the rotation even if he were healthy.
Trier with another quiet first half
Allonzo Trier had an efficient scoring night Saturday, tallying 25 points on just six shots. He was 4-6 from the field, 3-4 from 3, and a whopping 14-16 from the free throw line.
Trier also had six assists, but only scored five points in the first half as Arizona trailed 40-38 at the break.
“It’s funny with Allonzo, His first halves have been very quiet. I know he’s had a couple games where he’s had big first halves early, but once we got past the first three or four games, it’s almost like it’s halftime and you’re waiting for him to get going and then in the second half he does,” Miller said.
“Tonight was another example of that. I think it’s up to us to get him in the flow more often in the first half. But I don’t think he forced it. 14-16 from the line, he did to Alabama what Collin Sexton did to us. He has a gift of getting fouled and he’s a great free throw shooter.”
Another downside to Trier’s otherwise stellar performance: four turnovers.
“That’s the thing that’s plagued him here early, but I think he’ll get better as we move forward,” Miller said.
Trier said teams are defending him differently than they were earlier in the season.
“If you look at every single game we’ve played now, every time that I catch the ball there’s guys loaded where I’m at, so there’s always guys open,” he said.
“When they do those two things they’re capable of playing against anybody in the country”
Alabama point guard Collin Sexton had 30 points on 6-15 shooting, thanks to a remarkable 15-16 mark from the free throw line.
Miller was content how his team guarded the freshman phenom. Sexton was 3-6 from 3, but one was a banked-in buzzer-beater at end of the first half.
“They competed and that’s all we can ask for,” Miller said. “In basketball, there’s too much made about who is guarding who. Because the way Collin Sexton scores, it’s against the team. The big guy has to stop the ball. The team has to rotate and provide help. All you want from the guy covering him is great effort and concentration and we had that.”
Arizona mostly used Parker Jackson-Cartwright on Sexton, but also had Trier on him at times, too.
PJC had three points, five assists, four rebounds, and a steal on 1-4 shooting.
“As a senior point guard he has poise, he has been in so many games like this that I think we’re comfortable with him,” Miller said.
Like Trier, Sexton got off to a slow start before exploding in the latter part of the game. The freshman did not score his first basket until midway through the first half, and he scored 21 of his 30 points in the second half.
“I just had to get a feel for the type of defense they were going to play, and then to just get out there and get in a flow,” Sexton said. “In the second half, coach told me to attack a little more and to find teammates when they were open.”
Alabama shot 39 percent overall, but did a ton of damage at the 3-point line and charity stripe. It shot 10-24 from 3 and 24-28 from the free throw line.
“There were times when our defense was good and times when it wasn’t good,” Miller sad. “I’ll give Alabama credit. Their transition game and how they played was more efficient and slower. But they did not turn the ball over tonight. They were really sure of themselves and had the ball in Sexton’s hands a lot and he was tough to deal with.”
The Crimson Tide were averaging 15 turnovers per game heading into Saturday, but only had eight against Arizona. They were also shooting just 61 percent from the free throw line entering the game, but hit 86 percent Saturday.
“Tonight they were a great free throw shooting team and they took care of the ball,” Miller said. “When they do those two things they’re capable of playing against anybody in the country.”
So is Arizona when it’s clicking. The Wildcats have now won four in a row heading into next Saturday’s game at New Mexico.
Miller said Arizona has improved since its three-game losing streak in the Bahamas. Some humility has helped.
“Our guys had been lauded with praise and then that all went away. It’s a reminder of how quickly when you don’t win, people don’t talk about you or they don’t talk about you in a positive light,” he said. “Our practices have been better and sometimes it’s as simple as one of our best players hasn’t played yet and I think as Rawle settles in, our team has a big upside.”
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Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire