Comparing Deandre Ayton to other human basketball players is a thankless task.
You will be hard-pressed to find another person of that size with Ayton’s quickness, explosiveness, and skill.
So Bill Walton resorted to comparing Ayton to animals during the Arizona Wildcats’ 94-82 road win over Utah on Thursday.
Ayton apparently runs like a cheetah, soars like an eagle, has footwork like a mountain goat, the vision of a hawk, the dunks of an elephant, and the defensive ability of a grizzly bear.
Bill Walton compares Deandre Ayton to the wildlife of the far west pic.twitter.com/PgF8uyJnqt— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 5, 2018
Evidently those are all good things as Ayton wound up posting 24 points and 14 rebounds in the win — the type of performance that has become the norm for the Bahamian big man (he has 11 double-doubles in 15 games).
While Arizona head coach Sean Miller did not liken the 7-footer to wildlife, he did have to talk about another sport to describe his transcendent big man.
”Deandre is like that football team that keeps running the ball and you just say, `Are they ever going to pass?” Miller said.
“Then you just know if you’re that team, we’re going to break one. He just wears you out. From a basketball perspective, getting the ball to him around the basket or him getting second shots, it can wear out the other team.”
Arizona led by 14 at the half, but Utah tied the game with 6:10 left in regulation after shooting lights out in the second half.
The Wildcats struggled to hit perimeter shots all game, shooting just 4-12 from distance, so they relied on Ayton down the stretch, forcing the ball down low to him.
Ayton delivered, pouring in 19 second-half points to help UA stave off the pesky Utes.
“He was the difference tonight,” said Miller, who is becoming a broken record at this point.
Ayton was 10 of 15 from the field, continuing to score at an absurdly efficient rate. The freshman was No. 2 in the country in offensive efficiency heading into Thursday’s game.
“If the ball gets in the paint, it’s almost an automatic two points,” said UA guard Rawle Alkins. “It’s either a double-team or a bucket. You pick.”
That Arizona had a 14-point lead at the break and led by as many as 17 points in the first half surprised the Wildcats, said Alkins who had 22 points and seven rebounds.
After all, Arizona entered as just a 3.5-point favorite. So it may have eased up a bit, allowing Utah to storm back.
“I think we started to play to the game,” Alkins said. “They started to get that run and we responded, but we responded late in the game. That’s why the game felt funny. When we play together, we look unbeatable.”
Utah made its first six 3s in the second half and shot 50 percent in the period, despite shooting just 37 percent in the first half.
“We contributed to that because we haven’t become the team that can play really tough with energy and togetherness for 40 minutes on defense,” Miller said.
“Maybe we’re getting closer and I feel like we’re moving in the right direction, but the first eight to 10 minutes of the second half was a different game for us on defense than the other 28 to 30 minutes.
“We have to learn and we can’t just act like we won and nothing is wrong. We have to try to fix it. It’s about how hard and on it you have to be in conference play defensively when you’re playing against the well-organized and well-coached teams.”
Still, Miller was happy with the way his team kept its composure. The Utes were never able to capture a lead.
“I just think that’s how you win games on the road,” he said. “You’re not just going to just steamroll another team, especially Utah… It’s gonna feel like you’re grinding it out but really what you’re doing is you’re playing against the crowd, you’re playing against the runs that their team makes.”
Last Saturday’s game against ASU was similar. So was the game against New Mexico a few weeks back.
The common theme? Arizona won all three games.
Speaking of that crowd...
Anytime Arizona plays on the road, it’s public enemy No. 1 — it comes with the territory of being a highly-ranked team.
But because of UA’s involvement in a FBI recruiting bribery scandal, the hostility from opposing crowds has turned up even higher this year.
Utah’s crowd, which is the second-largest in the Pac-12 behind Arizona’s, had no shortage of jokes at UA’s expense, like donning shirts that said “FBI” and “U of Pay.”
Miller thought the crowd crossed the line.
“This is a very hard place to play and they had a hostile and nasty crowd,” he said. “They were saying crazy things and you have to play through that and I give our team a lot of credit. Even the kids who were on the bench had to go through that process. I give our team credit for being people with class and handling themselves right by playing through some moments that you don’t see a lot of times in a basketball game.
“I’m not even worried about me, I’m worried about our players. They handled it well and used it as fuel and now we have a hard-fought road victory in our pocket.”
At least Arizona didn’t get court stormed like ASU did Thursday after being upset by Colorado (more on that later).
Trier contributes in other ways
Arizona won its ninth straight, despite getting a quiet scoring performance from its leading bucket-getter Allonzo Trier.
The junior guard, averaging north of 20 points per game this season, had just seven points on 2-5 shooting.
But he did have five assists, five rebounds, and even a block.
“When you’re a scorer like him sometimes you try to make plays that aren’t there, because you’re so accustomed to scoring and maybe when he was younger he would do that,” Miller said. “He’s smarter now and he plays for the win. Some of the best passes tonight happened by him playing with the ball.”
Because of Alex Barcello’s struggles (and Thursday, Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s foul trouble), Trier has had to take on backup point guard duties which has led to an increase in minutes.
Trier played 36 minutes against Utah, and has not played fewer than 35 minutes in the last three games.
His teammates appreciate the sacrifice.
”Allonzo is very versatile,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “He’s just smart. When you’re a great basketball player, you can handle the ball, you can shoot the ball, and you can make others better. He’s just a jack of all trades and he does everything for our team. He’s our consummate leader.”
ASU out of the race?
Remember when Arizona and Arizona State were deemed the favorites to win the Pac-12, and that no one else remotely had a chance? I thought that, too.
But ASU could be all but eliminated Sunday (unofficially, at least).
The Sun Devils lost to Colorado 90-81 in overtime on Thursday in Boulder, falling to 0-2 in conference play. Arizona is 2-0.
Should ASU lose to Utah and Arizona beat Colorado later this weekend, the Wildcats would already have a three-game lead over the Sun Devils.
Given how weak the conference is, it would be an absolute shock if ASU rebounded from that — Arizona might not lose three conference games all year.
Yeah, it might be a little ridiculous to say the Sun Devils are already out of Pac-12 title contention just two weeks into conference play, but they sure have a lot of ground to make up to get back into it.
At minimum, ASU almost certainly has to win Feb. 15’s rematch against Arizona in Tempe to have a chance to win the conference.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire