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Arizona basketball: The conquests of Kadeem Allen

The Arizona senior is leading on and off the court for Wildcats

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Arizona vs North Dakota Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Wildcats senior Kadeem Allen’s greatest accomplishment has nothing to do with basketball.

The Wilmington, NC native, who’s been a tour de force on both sides of the ball for Sean Miller’s 31-4 Arizona team, cracked an ear to ear smile about something far from the majestic hardwood court at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City.

Kadeem will be the first member of the Allen family to graduate from college, earning a Bachelor’s degree in General Studies this May.

The 6-foot-3 guard, who transferred to Arizona from Kansas’s Hutchinson Community College in 2014, has done it all for Miller for two years.

Miller beamed when talking about the senior during Friday’s press conference, saying Allen compared to past guards like T.J. McConnell in his improvement on the court.

“Kadeem is one of my favorite players I’ve ever been around, as a teammate, when I played, assistant coach, head coach,” Miller said. “He has overcome tremendous odds. He’s what college sports is all about.”

Leading by example

Allen, who’s fifth on the team in points per game (9.8), fifth in rebounding (4.1), and second in assists (3.1), says he’d never have reached this point in life without the game.

“Basketball took me a lot of places, places I never thought I’d be,” Allen said. “And to be able to get that degree from the university and to be the first to do so in my family, it means a lot.”

Allen’s role on the Wildcats has undergone a meteoric rise that parallels his on-court growth, going from a bench player at the beginning of last season to averaging the third-most minutes per game on the team, at 29.9.

His teammates rely on him to make clutch shots and to settle their nerves when times get tough, they also lean on him for advice in difficult situations.

“Kadeem is a great leader,” sophomore guard Allonzo Trier said. “Not only does he do it vocally, but leads by example.”

Allen’s steadying presence was felt full-force on Thursday night when the Wildcats needed someone to turn the tide against a pesky North Dakota Fighting Hawks team in the tournament’s opening round.

Allen, who finished with 10 points on 3-4 shooting, was challenged by Miller midway through the second half to step up his game.

The senior virtually disappeared for the game’s opening half, scoring three points with one assist.

He knew the team counted on him to pick his game up, and did just that, scoring seven of the Wildcats next eight points to blow the game open.

Allen’s not a very vocal person by nature, preferring a soft-spoken style that runs counter to most floor generals in the NCAA.

What he lacks in bravado he more than makes up for in drive, though, freshman guard Rawle Alkins said Friday.

“(Kadeem’s) one of the best defenders on the team, if not the best,” Alkins said. “And him being the only senior on the team, this is his last go-round. So he’s going to give it his all.”

A challenging future

Allen will likely have to do just that if the Wildcats are going to advance to next weekend’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games.

The Wildcats are tasked with stopping seventh-seeded Saint Mary’s College, who handled Virginia Commonwealth University 85-77 Thursday.

Allen will likely be tasked with trying to stop Gaels guard Emmett Naar of Australia, who scored 13 points on 3-6 shooting (7-8 from the FT line) against the Rams.

Gaels Coach Randy Bennett heaped praise on Allen’s game Friday, saying the senior had the type of talent to challenge his players all night long.

Allen maintains an impressive level of confidence in his defensive abilities, openly embracing the challenge of shutting down whoever’s playing across from him.

“We’re not trying to go home, and I feel it’s up to me to really try to contain the other team’s best player,” Allen said. “It’s on me to try to give us the best shot to advance to that next round.”

It’s that confidence that has sparked a sizable jump in Allen’s offensive production, improving his three-point percentage from 36 percent a year ago to 40.8 percent this season.

His offensive stats across the board have improved, which Miller cites as proof of Allen’s work ethic and dedication both to his teammates and the sport.

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Miller said. “That’s why we want to keep going because somebody like him you want this season to grow.”

It’s been a long road from the lowlands of Southeastern North Carolina to the plains of Central Kansas and the parched earth and endless saguaros of Southern Arizona.

It’s a trek that Allen’s not ready to halt, not until he and his teammates are cutting down the nets some 131 miles northwest of campus at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

“Trying to lead and guide these guys and trying to take them to where we want to go has been amazing,” Allen says. “I’m just trying to take it one game at a time and bring that intensity every game.”