The Arizona Wildcats reportedly sat Rawle Alkins for precautionary reasons Wednesday night against lowly Cal after he experienced soreness in the same foot he had surgically repaired during the offseason.
Probably a wise move because the Wildcats clearly didn’t need him, winning that game by 21 points. But they might not have that same luxury Saturday in Palo Alto.
Nobody in the Pac-12 is playing better basketball than the Stanford Cardinal, who have won five straight.
After Arizona breezed by Cal, Stanford knocked off No. 16 Arizona State, 86-77, to tie the Wildcats at 5-1 atop the conference standings.
That sets up a Saturday showdown at Maples Pavilion, with the winner claiming sole possession of first place.
It’s a can’t-miss game — for fans and, Arizona hopes, for Alkins. UA assistant coach Mark Phelps did not rule out the sophomore returning Saturday.
It presumably helps that Arizona has a longer turnaround than usual this week, playing on Wednesday-Saturday instead of Thursday-Saturday.
If Alkins cannot play, Arizona will need another quality spot start from Dylan Smith to take down Stanford.
The redshirt sophomore had 14 points and shot a perfect 5-5 (including four 3s) against Cal as Alkins rested.
“It was great to see what Dylan Smith did offensively,” head coach Sean Miller told reporters afterward. “I think that should give him a lot of confidence.”
With Smith starting, Emmanuel Akot took on a greater role off the bench, playing 15 minutes — the most he played since Nov. 23 when Arizona played SMU in the Bahamas.
The freshman sank a 3, used his length well on defense, and did not seem bothered by the knee tendinitis that has hindered him seemingly all season.
”I thought Emmanuel Akot came in and gave us some good minutes,” Miller said. “He’s a bigger wing. A lot like Rawle he can help you rebound and defend bigger players.
”We needed him and when a guy goes down, and over the years we’ve had these situations, and usually the players that are called upon deliver. And at one point that used be Parker (Jackson-Cartwright). This year it’s that crew — Brandon (Randolph), Dylan and Emmanuel, and tonight they did a good job.”
Arizona committed a season-high 21 turnovers against Cal, to which Miller partly credited to Cal’s relentless zone defense.
“They’re active, play hard, and (Cal head coach) Wyking (Jones) really has those guys playing with a lot of energy,” Miller said. “But their style is to turn you over, block shots, and deflect and they mix the press in. So they do a really good job and we’re not the only team that has turned it over.
“But clearly we had some stretches that weren’t very good.”
Yeah, like when Arizona committed five turnovers in its first seven possessions of the game — Arizona’s third slow start in a row.
“It just seems like every once in a while we have some anxiety at the beginning of the game,” Miller said. “Hopefully we can get over that hurdle, but we also did some good things.”
Like shoot 62 percent and make 11 of 19 3s — and win a game in a venue that has not been kind to Arizona.
The Wildcats had lost two of their last three contests in Haas Pavilion.
“A road game in a conference like ours, every (win) is precious,” Miller said. “You win it, you take it. And sometimes it’s going to be ugly. Sometimes you’re going to play really, really well and not win. So the fact we were able to get out of here playing without a win, especially without Rawle Alkins. He’s a big part of what we do.”
Deandre Ayton posted his 13th double-double of the season Wednesday, with 21 points and 11 rebounds on 9-11 shooting.
Those 13 double-doubles are the most ever by an Arizona freshman. Michael Wright and Al Fleming once had 12.
“Obviously he’s a special player,” Jackson-Cartwright told reporters.
Here are some more crazy, but unsurprising, stats about Ayton.
Ayton is one of only three players in college basketball to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game on 60 percent shooting. The others are Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale.
Ayton is also No. 1 in KenPom’s Pac-12 Player of the Year race, and the site has listed him as Arizona’s ‘MVP’ in nine of UA’s last 12 games.
But before Ayton eviscerated Cal, Pac-12 Network analyst Kevin O’Neill said the big man should be averaging 25 points and 16 to 17 rebounds a game. That Ayton was not maximizing his talent.
”He’s one of those players that you’ll notice when he’s no longer there,” Miller said. “But while he’s there, the game is harder for the other team. He makes his teammates better.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire