When Stanley Johnson played his first game against UCLA in 2014-15 en route to the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award, he missed eight of nine shots he took, including all three 3-pointers.
The Wildcats still won 57-47. Same thing happened when Johnson struggled at Washington State (seven points in 17 minutes in UA’s 86-59 win) and at McKale Center against Oregon State (eight points on 3-for-10 shooting but a 57-34 UA win).
While the Wildcats did lose a shocker at Oregon State earlier that season when Johnson had only seven points and three rebounds, for the most part he had guys around to bail him out. Like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. T.J. McConnell. Gabe York. Even Elliott Pitts.
The same is not as true of UA’s freshmen this season: Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons have mostly been on their own.
When Markkanen fouled out in the critical final minutes of the Las Vegas Invitational final, the Wildcats lost to Butler.
UA has survived when Alkins (Michigan State) and Simmons (Colorado) struggled in other key games. But thanks to the ongoing suspension of guard Allonzo Trier, their occasional issues and need for rest can call for major shifts of personnel and some teamwide teeth-gritting.
“Stanley Johnson had plenty of valleys in his freshman year but they were really masked,” UA coach Sean Miller said, “because we had plenty of older players and a team where you’re up 16 points when he’s in his bad-game mode, instead of if he (struggles) the game goes from 10 to zero. We’re guarding against that.”
As UA moves into the second half of the season, its freshmen are also finding opponents have more video in which to scout them and try to slow their strengths.
So in all, here’s what the Wildcats are guarding against:
Stats: Combo guard, 30.1 minutes, 11.7 points, 33.3 3-point percentage.
Simmons appeared to be on the cusp of a midseason slump when he averaged just 5.5 points and combined for 4-of-13 shooting last weekend against Utah and Colorado, just a week after he averaged 14.5 points in UA’s road sweep of Cal and Stanford.
But Miller calls it more of a “peak and valley” situation than a midseason freshman slump. Same goes for his other freshmen, he said.
“Because those guys are wired differently and they have different expectations, they have such a different role, they may have more peaks and valleys,” Miller said. “Kobi is a great example. Against Stanford and Cal, he was a big reason we won.”
“He is a big reason we have the record we have right now, but the last two games really haven’t been his best. But that’s the valley that he’s in. He can climb out of it. We have to help him climb out of it. … You feel it more when they’re in a big, big role, a key role.”
Stats: Power forward, 31.1 minutes, 15.9 points, 45.6 percent 3-point shooting.
The Finnisher has been remarkably consistent and productive as a freshman: He leads the Wildcats in scoring, minutes and rebounds and, until Kadeem Allen hit all four 3-pointers he took last week, was leading in three-point percentage.
So Markkanen is probably not at risk of a midseason slump as much as from bursts of self-induced foul trouble, often a result of his dogged efforts to improve defensively.
Markkanen has picked up four fouls in three of UA’s Pac-12 games so far, having found it easier to pick up fouls in the U.S. college game playing tight interior defense than in the international events he’s used to. He’s also beginning to find other teams are trying to lure him into foul trouble, as Colorado successfully did Saturday.
“Learning how to manage his fouls is next up for him and we have to help him with that as well,” Miller said. “He’s trying hard to be a better defender so he makes harder plays around the rim, on the ball, tries to draw charges, but there’s a time and a place, depending on how many fouls you have, to do those types of things.
“The other team is trying to put fouls on him as well … they’re challenging Lauri on post ups and drives. The fouls hurt him, but he’ll get better. You think about Dusan (Ristic), it took him almost 2ƒ years to really be more in the right place more often. Lauri’s only been here for a half a season but we’re working with him and he’s improving.”
Saturday’s UA-Colorado game was a perfect example of Markkanen’s challenge. He had 22 points in 22 minutes, but didn’t play more because he picked up his fourth foul with 10:33 left when he unsuccessfully tried to pick up a charge.
Without having to deal with Markkanen during much of that second-half stretch, Colorado cut a 20-point UA lead down to five.
“That was a big reason they went on a comeback,” Miller said. “He has to learn there’s a time and a place to draw a charge, and that wasn’t the time or the place. You be smart and let him go. That two points (Colorado may score) is less important than his value to stay in the game.
“But he’s 18 years old and he has to go through some of these moments to learn. If this happens in our next game or down the road, I hope he can recall this and not make the same play.”
Stats: Small forward, 30.8 minutes, 12.3 points, 5.6 rebounds.
Ever since collecting just three points and two rebounds in UA’s opener against Michigan State, then picking up four fouls against Cal State Bakersfield in Arizona’s second game when learning his power moves sometime draw whistles, Alkins has been one of UA’s steadiest players.
He’s also been the Wildcats’ top rebounder who isn’t 7 feet tall. But Alkins found that production largely muted against Colorado when he suddenly found George King and the Buffs’ other wings routinely crashing the glass. Alkins had just two rebounds against Colorado, while King had 11 — including five offensive rebounds.
“Most of these teams don’t have guards who crash, and George King, I wasn’t really expecting him to crash,” Alkins said. “It took me until the second half to figure out he was crashing every shot. But I’m aware of it now. From now on, I’ll be more aware of my man on defense.”
He’ll need to be. As with Markkanen, Alkins has become a key figure on opponent scouting reports: Teams now try to get Markkanen in foul trouble, and they’ll emphasize keeping Alkins off the glass.
“I guarantee you if you were on Colorado’s side that was a big emphasis,” Miller said. “Rawle’s not a freshman mystery anymore. They know what he can do. He’s proven what he can do and they’re gonna make sure they block him out because him getting two, three, four offensive rebounds really makes our team better.”