Deandre Ayton is Gronk without the shoulder pads and the celebratory spike.
Before Ayton shot a free throw Saturday against the Oregon Ducks, 6-foot 7-inch, 230-pound UO center Mikyle McIntosh asked Ayton how much he weighed.
“What are you 250?”
Ayton motioned toward the ceiling.
“No, 260,” he said.
On most of Arizona’s 75 possessions in a die-hard match against Oregon, Ayton had McIntosh on one side and 6-9, 225-pound Paul White on the other. Often a third Duck arrived at the scene when more help was needed.
McIntosh and White are both 22 years old, transfers from Illinois State and Georgetown. Grown men.
“I’m 230,” said McIntosh. “Nobody can push me around.”
Yet Ayton scored 24 points as Arizona won with a late rush, 90-83. Maybe he didn’t push any of the Ducks around, maybe he didn’t bully anybody, but if you were courtside at McKale you couldn’t help but think throw it to Ayton would crack the code and beat the Ducks.
Oregon coach Dana Altman said he used “everybody we could” to help surround Ayton but in the end he was the difference in a game that had the feel of a Sweet 16 showdown.
“In my eight years in the league, we’ve never seen anybody like that,” said Altman.
In the lead-up to the Pac-12’s most compelling basketball rivalry, Altman watched tapes of four Arizona games. He not only saw the 7-1 Ayton average 20 points and 11½ rebounds, he saw something else.
“I never saw him lose his composure,” said Altman. “His hands. His feel for the game. I don’t know what he can’t do. I love the way he plays the game.”
Of Arizona’s 75 possessions, its most this season, Ayton received the ball in scoring position just 16 times, eight in each half. That seemed like far too few, but the way Oregon’s zone surrounded Ayton, it’s amazing the Wildcats got Ayton the ball that often.
Arizona led 15-9 before Ayton took his first shot. That’s how tight Oregon stuck to him. Some might’ve lost patience and forced a few shots, or pushed off and got a few unnecessary fouls.
Instead, Ayton kept his cool.
He produced 24 points from those 16 touches. He made 10 of 11 free throws, each one more important than the one before.
“We didn’t have an answer for him all night,” said Altman.
Miller, a very smart coach, did not take Ayton out of the game in the second half. How could you take a chance when the Ducks began to look like a team that could play deep into March? Ayton went the full 20 minutes even though he played with four fouls for what seemed like forever. Ayton only committed two fouls in the last 13½ minutes when Altman ordered the Ducks to attack Ayton as often as possible.
“I have to really convince myself to take Deandre out,” said Miller, who smiled and added “you only get him for so many games before he’ll be gone.”
So far, Ayton is averaging 20.2 points as an Arizona freshman. Only six other Wildcats — Sean Elliott, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves, Jason Terry, Jason Gardner and Chris Mills — averaged 20 over a full Pac-12 season, and all but Gardner were seniors.
As with Miller, UA fans are coming to appreciate Ayton in his brief one-year stay in Tucson. With him in the lineup for 37 minutes, almost anything seems possible, even on a day the Wildcats committed 17 turnovers and were snared by a stop-and-go game in which the officials called 51 fouls.
Here’s some context on 51 fouls: Last year the UA wasn’t involved in a game with more than 45 fouls.
Fortunately for Miller, the best way to beat a zone defense, especially one as effective as Oregon’s, is to shoot free throws. The Wildcats went 34 for 37. It’s almost impossible to lose a game in which you make that many foul shots.
Ayton went 10 for 11, mindless to the pressure, and Miller just shook his head, comparing his Bahamian center to a skilled golfer who can go out and shoot a low score without ever taking lessons.
“Deandre’s just got it,” said Miller.
And on Saturday, the Wildcats did, too.