The Arizona Wildcats advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals on Thursday, knocking off the Colorado Buffaloes 92-78 in the quarterfinals in Las Vegas.
Arizona held a 38-37 lead at halftime before exploding in the second half, outscoring Colorado 54-41 over the final 20 minutes.
Before Arizona takes on the UCLA Bruins on Friday, let’s take a look at what we learned about the Wildcats in their win over the Buffaloes:
Rawle Alkins is a jack-of-all-trades
The Wildcats outscored the Buffaloes by 13 in the second half after leading by just one at halftime, and Rawle Alkins epitomized the difference in Arizona’s performance in the two periods.
In the first half, the freshman was held scoreless and the only stats he registered were one assist, one block, and two turnovers.
In the second half, Alkins — like Arizona as a whole — picked it up. He scored all 15 of his points in the period, as he drained all three of his 3-point attempts, plus he dished out two more assists (both of which were slick feeds to Dusan Ristic).
“I said it after the game, I didn't think our team played as well in the first half,” head coach Sean Miller said after the win over CU. “... Rawle didn't play well in the first half. You could see it on his face at halftime, and he wanted to play better. I worry about freshmen at this time, because this is the first time they've entered this March Madness that they've been watching for so long. But it says a lot about Rawle how well he played in the second half.”
Coming off the ASU game in which Alkins tracked down a career-high 15 rebounds, the New York native is proving that he can do pretty much everything on the court at this point — rebound, score, defend, pass, shoot, etc.
The key, said Alkins, is focusing on making “the right play”.
“I thought the big reason he won the game and broke the game open was his overall good play,” Miller said. “Not just that he had a couple 3s, but he made a lot of good basketball plays and emerged in the second half, maybe on the heels of a sub-par or a half where he didn't play particularly well. Which is a great sign for our team. And clearly we all know how talented Rawle is, we believe in him. But he had a very, very good second half tonight.”
Alkins led Arizona in plus-minus as the Wildcats outscored the Buffaloes by 22 points when the freshman was on the floor.
Alkins didn’t know that, though, and probably because he doesn’t get how that stat works.
“I don’t understand that,” Alkins said with a smile when told he was Arizona’s leader in plus-minus. “Me? I was? I don’t pay attention to that too much, but that’s a great thing to have.”
Arizona’s offense is scary when Trier and Markkanen are on
On Monday, Miller cautioned that Arizona’s offense had not hit on all cylinders this season and one reason he gave was that the Wildcats have rarely had Lauri Markkanen and Allonzo Trier be “on” in the same game.
As Trier hit a hot streak recently, Markkanen had missed 11 3s in a row. But on Thursday, it all came together for them.
Markkanen scored 20 points on nine shots, while Trier added 19 points on 12 shots. Markkanen, who changed his shooting regimen, overcame his recent shooting struggles, as he shot 4 of 7 from 3.
As such, the Wildcats had a ridiculously efficient offensive night, shooting 56 percent from the field, and 10 of 19 from 3, with an offensive efficiency of 130.9 per KenPom, which was their second-best mark all season.
In the last five games, Trier is averaging over 20 points per game, and now, if Markkanen’s shooting issues are over, Arizona could be “peaking at the right time” as folks like to say.
The Wildcats have “it”, Miller learns from Lute Olson
Miller was actually asked after the game if he thought Arizona was peaking at the right time, but he couldn’t give a definitive answer.
“I don't really have the answer for that yet,” he said. “Fortunately, we play again [Friday], so I think we'll know a lot more [then].”
Either way, Miller said he learned from former UA head coach Lute Olson that the Pac-12 Tournament results really aren’t that important.
“I've learned a lot from him with all the great teams that he had. Some of the teams that you look at as the best in the history of our school didn't necessarily do well in the conference tournament,” Miller said. “They used the extra day of rest, maybe a lesson that they learned in the tournament. Then they caught tremendous momentum and played their best next week.
“No matter what happens this week, the one thing that I do know is it's about playing our best next week. But when you play in a venue like this, we just played against Colorado, and let me tell you, they're a tough out. They have a lot of upperclassmen, great coach, physical. It was a good test for our team. We passed that test. Tomorrow, guess what, the stakes grow. So every time we play on a neutral court, I think we gain more confidence, more experience. These guys are a fun team to coach.”
They are fun to coach and apparently they have “it”. But what exactly is “it”?
“Sometimes when you're in bed at night as the head coach, you say, do we have it? Do we have that will?,” Miller said.
“We have it. Whether we win or not, it's not going to be because of lack of effort or passion. These guys have been there from the first day in late August until now. They've given us every single thing that you can give as a team.
“Hopefully we can keep this going, whether it's this week or next week.”
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire