The Arizona Wildcats lost point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright to a significant ankle sprain Wednesday, which means there’s really only one question left to ask.
“Someone could get hurt tomorrow,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “That’s just the way it is.”
In an 85-63 win over Texas Southern on Wednesday, the Wildcats received another eye-opening offensive show from freshman 7-footer Lauri Markkanen — including 5 of 6 3-pointers — and the kind of aggressive defense Miller aims for.
Yet all that became a footnote when they lost Jackson-Cartwright for what Miller called a “significant amount of time” with a high ankle sprain suffered in the first half.
While the exact severity and timetable of Jackson-Cartwright’s injury aren’t known, a high ankle sprain suggests Jackson-Cartwright will be out until at least the start of Pac-12 play, trimming the Wildcats’ stable of healthy, eligible scholarship players back to just seven.
Because they have already had ACL tears take out Ray Smith and Talbott Denny – and because guard Allonzo Trier’s quest for eligibility has been stalled for nearly two months – the Wildcats have been shorthanded since the season began.
They had seven players for their two exhibition games, when center Chance Comanche was suspended over academic issues, and for their Nov. 15 game with Cal State Bakersfield, when Kadeem Allen was out with a sprained knee.
While Miller said often last season he had never seen the kind of injury string he had then – including injuries to center Kaleb Tarczewski and Trier that kept each out a month – now he has a potentially longer string of even more serious injuries to deal with.
So, asked if it was worse this year, Miller offered a short response that was all too typical of his subdued postgame news conference Wednesday.
“We’ve had two ACLs,” Miller said. “Arguably our best player (Smith) has never played.
“That’s the starting point. So where we go from here, I don’t know.”
There were bright sides for Miller to look at Wednesday, and he did. The Wildcats, facing a low-major opponent in between a loss at Butler and a showdown Saturday against Gonzaga, showed zero signs of a letdown right from the start Wednesday.
They jumped on Texas Southern right away, holding the Tigers to 1-for-5 shooting and helping create three turnovers while building a 10-2 lead over the first four minutes. UA went on to build a 25-9 lead on two straight three-pointers from Markkanen, and never led by single digits the rest of the half.
While the Wildcats weren’t able to run away from the Tigers in the second half without Jackson-Cartwright, leading by only 13 points with 6:25 to go, their defense remained strong and their offense overwhelming for their Southwestern Athletic Conference opponent.
Arizona held Texas Southern to just 39 percent shooting overall (32 percent from 3-point range), and shot 63 percent themselves. Of course, Markkanen singlehandedly pumped up that percentage, making 7 of 9 shots from the field and 5 of 6 3s. He also had five assists, six rebounds and two blocks, with no turnovers.
“He’s an excellent player. An excellent offensive player,” Miller said, already running out of adjectives to describe his standout freshman. “About as good an offensive player as I have seen. He takes care of the ball as well. … Our team is starting to learn his value when to find him.”
On almost any other night, Markkanen would have been the story all by himself. But Jackson-Cartwright left the game with 12:27 left and did not return. He took X-rays that Miller said were negative, though the sprain itself might cost the Wildcats dearly in the near future.
Without Jackson-Cartwright, Arizona’s already-heavy reliance on senior guard Kadeem Allen will become even more acute, with him taking on fulltime point guard duties while freshman Kobi Simmons – now the starting two-guard — is likely to scoot over as his backup.
Markkanen, meanwhile, will be forced to play both forward spots more often and even natural small forward Rawle Alkins is being asked to dial back to the shooting guard role.
“I’m ready for it,” Allen said.
Certainly, Allen showed as much on the court Wednesday. In 31 minutes, he had 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting, six rebounds, seven assists, a steal and only two turnovers.
“I just put it together tonight and had a good game,” he said.
But while Arizona leaned heavily on Allen, the Wildcats also turned to walk-on guard Tyler Trillo to play three minutes when the game was still in some doubt, and they may have to in the future.
Ironically, or maybe even ominously, the Wildcats even added a fourth walk-on before Thursday’s game, freshman guard Kody Jones of Virginia. They called Jones back after a walkon tryout earlier this fall that initially only resulted in Trillo joining the team.
Now there may be another. Miller said he isn’t considering borrowing a UA football player but he might look around to see who else tested well during that tryout, or find another body somewhere else on campus.
“We might have to. That’s something we have to take a look at,” Miller said. “Usually you have more than seven scholarship players. So we’ll do the best we can.”