The Arizona Wildcats improved to 7-3 after their 88-82 win over Alabama last week and are back in the Top 25 for the first time since their blunder in the Bahamas.
Momentum seems to be trending in a positive direction for Arizona. The Wildcats are enjoying a four-game win streak due in large part to noticeable improvements on defense. Now, with Rawle Alkins back in the mix, it appears players’ roles will be ironed out as Sean Miller tightens up the rotation before Pac-12 play.
While that is all well and dandy for Arizona, something else happened in the win over Alabama that should spark optimism for UA fans and could pay huge dividends for the Wildcats moving forward — Miller put the ball in Deandre Ayton’s hands at the end of the game.
Ayton scored a career-high 29 points against Alabama. The 7-foot-1-inch, 250-pound behemoth used a plethora of offensive moves to bury the Crimson Tide including face-up jumpers, layups off the dribble, put-back dunks and some smooth hook shots off post-ups. But it was his final four points of the game that really stood out.
Arizona was ahead 79-77 with just under two minutes left in the game when the Wildcats ran a designed play with Alkins and Ayton in a pick-and-roll. Alkins used a screen from Ayton just inside the 3-point line. This allowed Alkins to dribble drive into the lane, drawing multiple defenders. Ayton rolled out and received a return pass from Alkins for an open 10-foot jump shot which he took in rhythm.
Arizona ran a similar set a lot with Lauri Markkanen last season in pick-and-rolls to free him up for open 3s. Against Alabama, Arizona utilized Alkins’ size to get dribble penetration off the screen which allowed Ayton to roll out deep enough to get a mid-range jump shot which is a spot he feels comfortable shooting.
Arizona ran the same play on the next possession with Allonzo Trier handling the ball. Trier drove right of the screen from Ayton and kicked it back out to the freshman for a step in jump shot from the free throw line which he buried to put Arizona up 83-77 and seal the win for the Wildcats.
In these sets Miller puts Parker Jackson-Cartwright in the corner. The bigger guards (Alkins and Trier) are physical enough to get dribble penetration off screens to draw in defenders and free up Ayton for shots. And defenders have to be wary of PJC in the corner because he is shooting over 50 percent from 3, giving Ayton more room to make a play.
Look for Arizona to continue to run plays for Ayton that put him in positions to make plays, especially at the end of games. He is just too big and skilled to not get touches in crunch time and I think Arizona fans will agree it’s a better alternative to just clearing out for Trier in isolation, which is what Miller has done a lot in the past.