It’s not often the Arizona Wildcats get to host a non-conference opponent with a richer history than their own, but it will happen Thursday night when the five-time champion UConn Huskies visit McKale Center.
“We played this game because we’re playing a national program,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said on his radio show Tuesday. “A program that, like us, has a lot of high expectations. The fact we have them here at home, hopefully it’s going to be an exciting Christmas game for our fans.”
Yet, the game has drawn very little fanfare around Tucson. Two of the sport’s traditional powerhouses, what’s not to love?
Well, these aren’t quite the Huskies of the past.
UConn (7-3) is coming off its first losing season in over 30 years and doesn’t appear to be much better this season, venturing into McKale Center as the No. 101 team in college basketball, per KenPom.com.
The Huskies have lost to Michigan State, Arkansas (by 35), and Syracuse. If the season ended today, they would miss the NCAA Tournament.
Still, UConn did beat Oregon earlier in the year, so the 18th-ranked Wildcats know not to take them lightly.
“They’re an East Coast team, so they’re tough,” said UA guard Rawle Alkins, a Brooklyn, New York native. “East Coast guys are always tough and it’s an ESPN game too so it’ll be hyped up. The tougher team will come out on top.”
UConn has not played since Dec. 9 when it beat Coppin State 72-59, so it should be well-rested or rusty. Maybe both.
Meanwhile, one of Arizona’s top players is banged up. Yes, again.
Leading scorer Allonzo Trier is questionable for Thursday’s game with a left knee sprain which he suffered Monday after colliding with a North Dakota State player.
Miller said Trier also has a bone bruise, swelling, and soreness, but did seem hopeful the junior would suit up against UConn.
“He has almost full range of motion, which is also a great sign,” Miller said Tuesday. “If what he has in terms of discomfort can subside, he’ll be able to go. I know he wants to. We certainly won’t put him out there unless it’s safe for him, and also good for both him and our team.”
Trier’s injury comes right on the heels of Arizona welcoming Alkins back into the lineup.
The sophomore has played in three games since returning from a broken foot that sidelined him the first nine games of the season.
Alkins has had his fair share of ups and downs since debuting against Alabama on Dec. 9.
He scored a career-high 26 points against New Mexico last Saturday, but then regressed Monday against North Dakota State with just 11 points and six rebounds on 3-8 shooting.
“I want to caution everyone on Rawle,” Miller said. “It’s not easy to sit eight weeks and get plugged back in and be clicking on all cylinders. He had a great game against New Mexico and tonight (vs. NDSU) he did some good things, but he didn’t play as well.
“As of now we don’t have many plays for Rawle because he was out for so long, so we still have to work him back into our offense.”
As Trier recovers and Alkins continues to get back up to speed, Miller is still trying to sort out his bench, figuring out which freshmen — aside from Deandre Ayton, of course — he can rely on as Pac-12 play draws near.
Emmanuel Akot stood out against NDSU, and Brandon Randolph has been a recent bright spot, but the rotation is still very much up in the air.
“Because of so much change from last season to this season, it’s hard to get it right in particular with Rawle being out as long as he was,” Miller said. “But we’re learning, I think our players in particular are learning and I think we’re close to having it where we’re at.
“We’ve depended on some guys and they haven’t necessarily come through. That’s a fact. You lose three games in three days in the Bahamas, somebody is not playing well. It was a lot of guys that are fighting for the rotation. It wasn’t just them. But do I think they are better now than they were then? Absolutely. But we needed them to be good then and they weren’t, so getting Rawle back is by far the biggest shot in the arm and hopefully Allonzo will be OK.
“But the development of the young players is a big part of our program and it’s something we have to do well. Because when you have guys coming in off the bench in addition to the starters playing well, that’s when you have a good team. I think we have the makings of that maybe in our future.”
It appears so. Arizona has won six straight since it lost three games in three days in the Bahamas.
On Monday, Miller, who has been highly critical of his team this season, thought Arizona turned in a complete performance against North Dakota State.
The defense in particular, which ranks just 60th in the country, per KenPom, looked much improved, holding the Bison to 37 percent shooting.
“I think we’re communicating with each other, just getting a lot more reps,” Alkins said. “We’re talking to each other a lot more. Coach stresses it. I think we were like the 60th defensive team in the nation right now. I don’t know what we are after this game, but we just need to continue to climb."
In more ways than one — Arizona moved up from No. 23 to No. 18 in the AP Poll this week.
The Wildcats still aren’t performing like the preseason No. 3 team they were pegged to be, but a win over UConn would be more proof for Miller that they are at least trending in the right direction as they enter conference play.
“We’re going to have to play a great game, be at our best,” he said. “I think it’s something that I think we’re moving towards. There would be nothing better than having a great performance and having a chance to beat a quality team before we leave home for Christmas."
How to watch
Game time: 7 p.m. MST
TV channel: ESPN2
Live stream: WatchESPN
Announcers: Dave Pasch & Bill Walton
- Arizona will face the Huskies in Connecticut next season to complete the home-and-home series.
- The Wildcats are 0-5 all-time against UConn, with the last matchup being the 2011 Elite Eight.
- Arizona point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright opened the first five games of his senior season with 27 assists and 11 turnovers, good for a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. In the seven games since, PJC has tallied 31 assists to just six turnovers for a 5.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.
- UA enters the UConn game with the third-highest scoring duo in the country in Deandre Ayton (20.3 ppg) and Allonzo Trier (21.7 ppg).
- In his last seven games, Brandon Randolph is averaging 10.7 points per game while shooting 53.1 percent from the field, 47.6 percent from deep and 76.5 percent at the charity stripe.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire