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6 storylines in the Stanford-Arizona game

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Lots of question marks for the Wildcats, but they can secure a share of the Pac-12 title with a win

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The 19th-ranked Arizona Wildcats host the Stanford Cardinal on Thursday at 8 p.m. MST to begin their final homestand of the season.

The last several days have been quite eventful for Arizona, but not in a good way.

Head coach Sean Miller has been away from the team since Saturday after an ESPN report alleged FBI wiretaps have him discussing a $100,000 payment with former ASM employee Christian Dawkins to secure the signing of prized freshman Deandre Ayton.

Ayton and his family have denied any illegal activity, and UA’s outside counsel has strongly defended Ayton, saying there is “not a shred” of evidence that suggests he broke any NCAA rules.

Ayton played Saturday and was declared fully eligible, so his status for Thursday’s game is not in doubt. Lorenzo Romar has been coaching the Wildcats in Miller’s absence, and it is unclear how long that will continue.

The Arizona Board of Regents is set to discuss Miller’s contract Thursday when we might get more clarity on the embattled head coach’s return. But it does seem unlikely that Miller will be on the sideline Thursday.

Arizona is also without star guard Allonzo Trier who has been declared ineligible after testing positive for Ostarine for the second time. Arizona has appealed the NCAA’s suspension, but who knows when that will be resolved. Most likely not before tip-off.

Then there’s Ira Lee, who remains sidelined with a concussion.

As all these things get sorted out, let’s take a look at some things to watch in Thursday’s game.


Will Arizona cut down the nets?

Throughout all the mess, it has been easy to forget that Arizona is on the verge of winning another Pac-12 title.

But let’s not actually forget about it.

The Wildcats just need to beat Stanford to clinch at least a share of the conference championship, while a sweep (or a USC loss) this weekend would mean they win it outright.

Now, a Pac-12 title’s significance might seem moot amid all the controversy the UA program is emerged in, but at minimum it is a noteworthy accomplishment for the players who have battled through a season that has had more downs than ups (and not because of their on-court performance).

And yeah, maybe whatever they do will be vacated down the road, but nothing can strip them of that moment they get to step up on that ladder and cut down the net.


Dusan Ristic can become UA’s all-time winningest player

In an alternate reality without the scandals, this would be Dusan Ristic Week.

His parents have made a rare visit to Tucson from Serbia. He is about to play his final home games at McKale. He can become a Pac-12 champion once again. And he is just one victory away from becoming Arizona’s all-time winningest player.

The senior 7-footer sits at 110 wins, tied with Kaleb Tarczewski and Matt Muehlebach atop the leaderboard.

All those things will probably happen, and normally that would be a tremendous way to wrap up the final regular season of his career. But with every going on, it will be a secondary storyline. Maybe even tertiary.

That is unfortunate, considering all Ristic has done to be in the position that he’s in. He deserves better.


Will Arizona’s defense be a Travis-ty?

Stanford big man Reid Travis had his way with the Wildcats in Palo Alto back in January. The reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week had 20 points (on 8-of-14 shooting) and 10 rebounds.

Travis was particularly dangerous in the first half when he scored 14 of his 20 points. At one point, Travis blew by Ayton and drew a foul on the UA big man before hollering, “he can’t guard me!”

That was true. Ayton was couldn’t stop Travis, whose blend of skill, strength, and athleticism makes him a tough cover.

But Travis only scored six points in the second half after Rawle Alkins was switched on him. That might have saved the game for Arizona which squeaked out a 73-71 road victory.

But if Romar is coaching Thursday, will he be savvy enough to make that same adjustment? Will Alkins have the energy to do it? Remember, with Trier out, Alkins has had to take on a larger role offensively. Asking him to do that and be Travis’ primary defender could be too much.

And if Alkins doesn’t guard Travis, will Ayton fair better this time? Ira Lee likely won’t be available so maybe Keanu Pinder can step up?

Or maybe Arizona should focus on Stanford’s other scoring threats and assume Travis is going to get his.

One area Arizona needs to be better at in this rematch is controlling the defensive glass. Stanford had 13 offensive rebounds last time.


Where will the points come from?

Trier is unlikely to play, so Arizona will be without one of the nation’s most efficient scorers for the third straight game.

The Wildcats have to replace his 19.6 points per game somehow. Against Oregon, it was Alkins, Ayton, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright stepping up, combining for 67 points. Dylan Smith, who now starts in place of Trier, added 12 too.

Against Oregon State, Arizona relied on the trio of Ristic, Ayton, and Alkins. Those three will probably do the bulk of the scoring from here on out, but finding a fourth or fifth contributor will be paramount in case one or two of them have off games.


Akot’s ascension

One beneficiary of Trier’s suspension is Emmanuel Akot. The freshman played 25 minutes against Oregon State and 17 minutes against Oregon last weekend.

His stats don’t pop off the page, and he is not going to come close to replacing Trier’s offense, but the more he plays the more it should aid his development.

Akot is a positive contributor for Arizona’s defense, which now ranks just 103rd in efficiency, but also consider the long-term ramifications — Akot might be one of the few returning players Arizona has next year.


How will McKale welcome the Wildcats?

Arizona players will likely get a loud welcoming from the UA faithful. Maybe even louder than usual.

But what type of reception will Romar get? And what happens if Miller does coach?


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire