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Arizona basketball: Lauri Markkanen finds shooting rhythm, Wildcats’ entire offense benefits

The 7-footer is back on track, and so is Arizona’s offense as a result

NCAA Basketball: PAC-12 Conference Tournament-Arizona vs UCLA Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

If a one-game sample size wasn’t enough to convince you that Lauri Markkanen has broken out of his shooting slump, a second strong performance should have done the trick.

After shooting 4 of 7 from 3 against the Colorado Buffaloes to open the Pac-12 Tournament — snapping an 0 for 11 3-point streak — Markkanen shot 4 of 10 from distance against the UCLA Bruins as he finished with 29 points, his highest-scoring outing since Jan. 21 when he dropped 30 points on ASU.

Understandably, Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller raved about the 7-footer after his team’s 86-75 win over the Bruins, which put them into the Pac-12 Tournament championship game.

“I think the adjustment of zone defense, the physicality of college basketball, a longer shot clock, it took us a while as a coaching staff to really put him in a better position to use his size close to the basket,” he said.

“So over the last month, he went through, whether it was a drought or maybe a number of games where he didn't make 3s, but keep in mind, in one of those weeks he was actually the National Player of the Week, and he didn't make any 3s. So he's learned and he's grown offensively close to the basket, offensive rebounding, he's a much better defensive player. I think he would tell you that.

“So I think as he focused a lot on the development of that, he probably got away from focusing on the things that he's always done naturally. Now, for the first time I believe he has both qualities, where he's physical around the basket, more comfortable, we're more comfortable as a team with him close to the basket, and now his shot returns.

“There aren't many players that are better, and I think Allonzo [Trier] (who was at the podium with Miller and Markkanen) would attest there aren't many kids that are better teammates. He does what we ask him to do every day. Tonight he was spectacular.”

Not only is Markkanen at his best when he is hitting shots from the perimeter, so is Arizona’s offense. The Wildcats’ guards mentioned that life is easier for them when Markkanen is sinking shots from range.

“It opens up the floor,” Parker Jackson-Cartwright explained. “Just by him knocking down one, I think for everyone else it opens up the lane for everybody to drive and kick. And I think when he’s on the perimeter and he’s making shots, the lane is just that much bigger.”

Added Rawle Alkins, “when I attack, teams they go look for Lauri and it opens up the lane for me and if they help I just kick it out to him and he knocks it down.”

And it’s not just Arizona’s guards who benefit from Markkanen’s presence.

“I think when he makes shots it’s good for the whole team because our offense opens up, so big guys, me and Chance (Comanche), we have more space inside,” Arizona center Dusan Ristic said. “Obviously when they crowd inside Lauri is more open, so I think that’s our main weapon right now. We can be dangerous inside and outside.”

Arizona’s field goal percentage has been at 50 percent or higher in both games of Markkanen’s two-game hot streak.

“It feels the same, but of course it’s nice to see it going in for once,” Markkanen said of his jumper.

“If someone does get red-hot, I think that boosts everyone’s confidence and that helps them to make shots.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire