The sophomore sat out because of foot soreness, and it threw UA’s starting five out of whack. The Buffaloes took advantage and swiped an early 10-point lead.
“Every team has a personality,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We’re not the same without Rawle. He gives you second shots, he gives you a bigger a guy, somebody who’s a creator for others and confidence.
“You play the game a certain way for how many games in a row and then all of a sudden one of your starters isn’t there.”
Eventually, the Wildcats found their groove — and then some — shooting 69 percent in the second half to come away with an 80-71 win.
It helped that Arizona got another strong performance out of Alkins’ replacement, Dylan Smith.
Smith drained three 3s, scoring 13 points of 4-8 shooting to go along with four rebounds and three assists.
Alkins missed last Wednesday’s game at Cal, too, and Smith answered with 14 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting that time.
“As Rawle has left two games, Dylan has really filled in and done a nice job,” Miller said. “I thought he did a good job tonight.”
Smith has started to earn Miller’s trust and played a season-high 34 minutes against Colorado.
Smith said the extra playing time has helped him establish a rhythm, which explains his hot shooting of late.
“Basketball is a rhythm sport,” Smith said. “Once you get a little, it’s easier to play.”
The win was Arizona’s fifth straight, but it was another close call. Four of those five wins have been decided by nine points or less.
“We are not that much better than a lot of the teams in our conference, but we have been able to make some timely plays and finish games,” Miller said. “It is up to us to continue to grow so that we keep getting better, but I’m not going to ignore that Rawle didn’t play.
“We are a much better team with Rawle than without him. But as all coaches and teams have to go through — foul trouble, illness, injuries — how you deal with it when it happens is everything. And tonight for us to be able to win without him was a big, big deal and I do think he will return sooner rather than later.”
Miller reiterated that Alkins, who missed the first nine games of the season because of a broken right foot, only has soreness in his surgically-repaired foot. Nothing more. No new breaks or stress fractures.
And the soreness is a new development, Miller said. It only started occurring in practice leading up to the Cal game. Prior to that, Miller said, Alkins had zero pain.
“It was a single incident or one time in a practice leading up to that game that he just felt different,” Miller said. “So it’s up to him to communicate, which he did. Believe me, he wants to be out there, but it’s in his best interest and our team’s best interest to manage it the right way.”
The right way includes being extra careful with Alkins. Because, let’s face it, Arizona will need him a lot more in March than it does now.
Though, Miller said he does not have a vote as to when Alkins returns.
“It’s up to the doctor, [trainer] Justin [Kokoskie], and Rawle. And if all three of those guys agree that it’s safe for him to return, then we’ll play him,” Miller said. “And if there’s a minute-restriction we’ll do that as well.”
After Alkins sat out against Cal, he returned a few days later when Arizona beat Stanford to complete the Bay Area sweep.
Alkins played 34 minutes in that game, but started experiencing soreness again and was subsequently held out of practice this week.
“If you watched him in the Stanford game, you wouldn’t have known anything was wrong,” Miller said. “And it wasn’t like he couldn’t walk the next day, he just had a little more soreness. So when you have more soreness on a foot like his that’s been surgically repaired, you have to take note and do the necessary things to protect him. So that’s what we did this week.”
Miller said Alkins’ pain level is “a lot more comfortable” when he is completely shutdown (as to playing through it), and he does not know when the sophomore will return.
Alkins was in a boot in shootaround before Thursday’s game.
“Tomorrow’s another day,” Miller said. “He might play against Utah (on Saturday), he might not. But if he does play it’s because he has a zero pain threshold.”
Ayton battling strep throat
Alkins was not the only one who missed practice this week.
Star freshman Deandre Ayton missed a day and a half after coming down with strep throat.
Ayton still played 37 minutes against Colorado, but Miller thought the illness affected his performance.
“He got on the medicine and really started to feel better yesterday and today but watching him out there, he did the best he could, but I don’t know if he was at full-go,” Miller said.
Ayton finished with 20 points on 10 shots (he made all 12 of his free throws), but was limited to six rebounds.
“He didn’t get an offensive rebound in 37 minutes,” Miller said. “That’s unlike him.”
Still, Miller is not concerned about Ayton and said he thinks the big man will “return to form” Saturday vs. Utah.
“He’s 100 percent, but it’s like anybody — you miss practice, you have strep throat, you don’t feel completely 100 percent,” Miller said.
“My hope is the next couple days he will.”
Arizona beat Utah 94-82 when the teams matched up in Salt Lake City on Jan. 4. Ayton had a game-high 24 points and 14 rebounds.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire