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Arizona basketball: 4 things we learned in the Wildcats’ win over the USC Trojans

The Wildcats may roll with several different starting lineups, plus they have two shooters that aren’t missing right now

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats started their final homestand of the season Thursday with a 90-77 victory over the USC Trojans in McKale Center.

They will now prepare for the most important game of the year on Saturday — a bout against the No. 5 UCLA Bruins with ESPN’s College GameDay on campus and a Pac-12 title potentially on the line.

But before that, let’s get to the things we learned about Arizona in its win over USC.

There are quite a few.

Arizona’s starting lineup is fluid

Surprisingly, Arizona debuted a brand new starting lineup against USC, sending out Chance Comanche, Lauri Markkanen, Allonzo Trier, Kadeem Allen, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright at the opening tip.

It was the seventh starting lineup Arizona has used this season, and it likely won’t be the last time the Wildcats make an alteration.

“The way we’re going to do the starting lineup moving forward — because of how many players have been injured — we have to look at it on a more game-by-game basis,” UA head coach Sean Miller said. “What’s gonna allow us to get off to a good start? What’s going to be the best for us? And I think we’re going to have a number of different lineups here down the stretch.”

Miller said he thinks Dusan Ristic, who did not start for the first time all season when healthy, is 100 percent recovered from his ankle sprain, but is still behind since he missed a few practices recently.

Combine that with Comanche’s recent excellence and Miller decided to start him for the second-straight game.

“Chance has played really well so he got the nod tonight,” Miller said.

Comanche had six points and one rebound in 19 minutes on Thursday.

Thursday also marked the first time Rawle Alkins was not in Arizona’s starting lineup this season. It did not phase the freshman, though.

Alkins scored 12 points and went 5-for-5 from the field, while tracking down four rebounds and dishing out four assists in 17 minutes.

“Rawle is a great teammate and I didn’t think it affected him at all tonight,” Parker Jackson-Cartwright said of Alkins coming off the bench. “He came in, did his job, and I think it would have been the same thing if he started as it is for everyone that comes off the bench.”

Miller said Markkanen has been the team’s most consistent freshman, but considers Alkins to be one of UA’s “cornerstones.”

“He hasn’t missed one practice. He hasn’t missed a game,” Miller said of Alkins. “He’s very, very unselfish. It’s not just one thing that he does well, it’s the fact that he’s so versatile and can do so many different things.”

Sean Miller wants teams to play zone against Arizona

Yes, you read that correctly.

It is almost a given that Arizona will face a zone defense at some point in a game, no matter who it plays.

Miller not only expects it, he actually prefers it now.

“We were that team that everybody threw the zone up (against),” he said. “I hope that teams do that now because we are able to get quality 3s. We have five or six players that are capable of shooting a good percentage from 3. Now that Parker is on board, Allonzo’s on board, we have a number of guys that can do that.”

Miller also likes how his team has been penetrating zones and getting the ball inside.

“We have a little bit of everything going against the zone and that’s a big difference in our team,” he said. “Because a couple weeks ago if you put a zone up, it would slow us down. I’m not so sure that right now that’s the case. That’s what you hope happens over a course of a season and practices. Our guys are much more comfortable.”

USC did not entirely play zone Thursday, but Arizona had success when it did.

In total, UA shot 51 percent from the field and 11-of-20 from 3. The Wildcats also had twice as many assists (16) as turnovers (8) and 10 offensive rebounds.

“That’s a prolific offensive night,” Miller said.

Trier and PJC are hitting their strides

As Miller pointed out, Jackson-Cartwright and Trier have caught fire on the perimeter.

Once shooting under 30 percent from 3, Jackson-Cartwright has been torching the nylon lately, raising his 3-point percentage all the way to 38.5.

“I just think I’m in a good rhythm. My teammates are doing a good job of finding me,” he said. “The same preparation I had when I was missing a bunch earlier in the season, it’s the same now. They’re just happening to fall.”

The junior point guard has made 15 of his last 23 3-point attempts and went 3-for-4 from behind the arc against the Trojans.

“We had a lot of players contribute and a lot of players step up, but the guy that I’m most proud of is Parker,” Miller said. “He’s gone through a lot. A high ankle sprain for a basketball player, it’s not an easy injury for anybody but it really took him out of things for over two months. He wasn’t shooting the ball well for a long time.

“As I continued to be asked about his shooting, I always come back to the same thing. I’ve never seen a player who shoots it as consistently as he does every day (in practice) not translate into a game.

“His recent play has been a great spark for our offense. The ball moved when he was in tonight and he did a great job.”

Miller also commended Jackson-Cartwright’s defense.

“Just watching him move on defense, he’s played some great defense recently as well, which has really helped our team and that’s why he’s playing more minutes,” Miller said.

Trier is on a tear of his own. The sophomore is 8-of-11 from 3 in the last two games, posting two 20-plus point games.

“He’s really improving,” Miller said. “His shooting, he’s so much better of a 3-point shooter than he was a year ago. He was streaky a year ago. He’s a really good 3-point shooter right now. It’s great to see that percentage finally turn for him.

“Missing 19 games and then coming back, it’s taken him a little bit of time to really show of much better of a 3-point shooter he is.”

Trier is shooting 41 percent from 3 this season. He is also averaging 5.0 rebounds per game, nearly two rebounds more per game than he grabbed as a freshman.

“I’m really happy with his rebounding,” Miller said. “I don’t know if there’s a guard in the country that’s rebounding better than him. He had 12 defensive rebounds against Washington State, had four tonight (against USC).

“Defensively, we’re asking him to be like Kadeem. We need him to be 1B. If Kadeem is 1A, we need that second guy to emerge and that’s really what we’re asking of Allonzo.”

Trier, who played in his 10th game Thursday, says he is still not performing as well as he would like.

“But it’s not about that, it’s about doing what’s best for the team and how can I make an impact and help these guys,” he said.

The Wildcats are 9-1 since his return.

Arizona’s defense needs work before it takes on UCLA. A lot of it.

Arizona was once a top-15 defensive team in the country, per KenPom, but it has slid all the way down to 31st as its defense has tailed off in recent weeks.

Thursday’s game was no exception.

USC shot 53 percent against Arizona, highlighting the Wildcats’ weaknesses of defending off the dribble and protecting the rim. The Trojans scored 42 points in the paint.

“We have to be a lot better defensively,” Trier said flatly. “We understand that.”

Miller thought Arizona was caught off guard by USC’s uptempo offensive attack.

“We’re not the team that can pick and choose how hard we’re going to play on defense, that’s not going to get us very far,” he said. “And when we did that or when their pace caught us by surprise, they had some of the easiest, high-percentage shots that we’ve given up to any team this year.”

Of course, with UCLA — the team with the nation’s top offense — coming to town Saturday, it is imperative the Wildcats improve significantly defensively.

Their offense has to be on point, too.

“You’re only going to go as far as your excellence on both ends. It can’t just be one,” Miller said. “We have to be good on both sides. To beat UCLA, certainly that’s what’s going to be required because I said it before we played them the first time — I have not faced a team as a coach that scores as consistently or as easily as their team. It’s almost shocking to see how easy they score.

“They blend a lot of characteristics of a team that I think can win the national championship — experience, great guard play, being great in a certain area, which for them is offensive efficiency. And that’s why for us, it’s not just going to be defense, it has to be defense and offense, but clearly our defense has to be at its best to have a chance to slow them down.”

When Arizona beat UCLA in January, the Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3 and 91 percent from the free throw line. They also had 15 assists to just seven turnovers.

Equally important, they held the high-octane UCLA offense far under its season averages. The Bruins shot 45 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3.

“We played a great game on both sides,” Miller said. “No matter who beats UCLA, that’s what you have to do.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire