When you have a team lead by freshmen going into the NCAA Tournament, you might worry about those freshmen having a “deer in the headlights” kind of look.
In a 100-82 victory over the Fighting Hawks, Arizona’s two starting freshmen, Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Alkins, each put up a team-high 20 points.
“I’m so proud of these two guys,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said while sitting next to Markkanen and Alkins after the game. “I’ve answered a lot of questions about obstacles and adversity we’ve faced throughout the season, and a lot of times I answer them by saying we have three freshmen that are excellent players but bring no drama to the table. They do their job and they’re consistent.”
“Tonight is a great example,” continued Miller. “Tonight in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, you would expect freshmen to sometimes have a struggle. Lauri and Rawle were our two best players tonight, and in Rawle’s case, it might’ve been the best game he’s played at Arizona.”
“They’ve been like that all season,” Kadeem Allen said about the freshmen in the Arizona locker room. “Whatever game we play, they’ve been the rock of our team since day one, and for them to play in their first NCAA Tournament game, they (both) stepped up big time and kept us in the game.”
“I thought they were the most consistent players on our team,” Miller added. “They made big plays when we really needed it. When you look at who answered their big run in the second half, these two guys made a lot of plays to answer that run.”
For Alkins, this isn’t too surprising since he’s arguably been the most even-mannered player on the team all year. And he’s just grateful to still be playing college basketball at this point in the year.
“This is a great opportunity,” Alkins said about simply playing in the tourney. “Not every team’s playing in March, so to be one of the few teams playing in March is a great feeling.”
Markkanen was able to score 16 of his points in the first half, showing off how big of a matchup issue he is for a team like UND.
“He shoots it at a high level, he can handle it, but for a young player he’s so poised,” UND head coach Brian Jones explained about what makes Markkanen such a tough matchup. “He never gets rattled, he never gets fed up. I thought they did a tremendous job of getting him. We were switching and trying to keep him off balance by giving them different looks, and they did a nice job of just getting him the ball and he was patient with it.”
“I wish we had done a better job of getting the ball to Lauri in the second half,” Miller said about the big man getting just four points after halftime. “As we’ve learned, teams go to great lengths to try and take him out of things, and sometimes it opens up other opportunities for his teammates. And although maybe in the second half he didn’t score as much, maybe we didn’t even get him the ball in scoring position as much.”
“When teammates feed me the ball, I just try to finish,” Markkanen said afterwards. “And that was it.”
Arizona’s inability to get Markkanen the ball resulted in Dusan Ristic picking up 12 second half points after not scoring any in the first half.
So even if it’s not the freshmen getting the numbers, their sheer presence on the floor opens things up for the rest of the Wildcats. And with the depth this team has, that’s more than enough.