For all the offensive options Sean Miller has this season, there’s one move he never wants his guys to forget.
That would be the one called “Just Pass The Ball to Deandre.”
After Ayton took only nine shots against New Mexico on Saturday, the Bahamian freshman big man took 17 on Monday against North Dakota State. He made 11 of those shots, including all three free throws he took, to total 25 points.
Ayton averages 12.8 shots per game so far.
“He has to get the ball. He really does,” Miller said. “You can’t choose not to throw it to him because the percentages are just overwhelming in our favor. No. 1, he’s a willing passer and an excellent passer. Some of our best 3-point shots came because (a side of the defense) had to help.
“No. 2, he’s a very good free-throw shooter. He’s a better free-throw shooter than he’s actually shown. So if he gets fouled, if the other team fouls him that hurts them. Can put us in the bonus and sometimes a quality player has to sit on the bench. Not to mention he’s shooting more than 60 percent when he gets in there. (Ayton is shooting 70.8 percent from the line after Monday’s game).”
And, of course, Ayton is also pretty good shooting from the field...he's shooting 62.3 percent so far this season, often having to do so with more than one guy around him.
All that brings up the funniest moment of Monday's postgame press conferences: Ayton was asked what goes through his mind when he sees only one defender on him.
“Oh,” Ayton said. "Paradise."
Ayton paused while everyone laughed. “I mean, I really don’t see the one defender that’s on me. I look at the help defense a lot. But yeah, that’s paradise.”
Miller gave 10 players 10 or more minutes Tuesday while his rotation continues to be somewhat up in the air at a time when he’s normally narrowed it down or cemented it.
“We would have loved to have it settled now,” Miller said. “It’s not like we predetermine, `Hey we’ll have it settled when Christmas comes.’ Sometimes with the teams that we’ve had it almost seems like in the first week of the season, unless somebody gets injured, you basically have your rotation. Because there was so much change last season to this season it’s been hard to, especially with Rawle (Alkins) being out, but we’re learning. Our players are learning, and I think we’re close to having it where we’re at.”
Miller even played Emmanuel Akot for the first time in three games, saying the promising freshman forward still has a good chance to be part of the rotation. Akot, who had two points and an assist in 10 minutes Monday, has been held back partly by knee tendinitis.
“Emmanuel is somebody we really believe in,” Miller said. “His tendinitis has hurt him, it hasn’t allowed him to be in practice and available. In the Bahamas we couldn’t play him against Purdue. If he wanted to he couldn’t go. (Akot played nine first-half minutes and one second-half minute against the Boilermakers). His legs will keep getting stronger, he’s working hard and I think over the next two months as he gets more strength, and we’re smart with him, if the tendinitis really goes away, he could be a guy who really impacts what we do down the stretch.”
When asked if part of the problem was psychological, Miller disagreed.
“It affects him a lot,” he said. “You can see when he runs full speed and then stops -- he almost like cushions the stop, because he feels pain. He’s really had that the last couple of years and it’s something that young people who’ve grown like he has, experience.
"We’ve had everything now, from doctors to weight room (work) to Justin (Kokoskie, UA athletic trainer) sometimes withholding him from practice, but he’s all about strength and flexibility. If he works hard at it, there will come a time when he doesn’t have tendinitis. That’s what I’m being told. And Emmanuel knows that as well. He’s worked hard and tonight he made some really positive plays.”
The way Miller spoke after Monday's game, in complementary tones about Akot and nearly all of his players, was almost the polar opposite of his postgame press conference after UA beat Long Beach State by a similar margin on Nov. 29.
For example, here's what Miller said about how UA responded when North Dakota State kept the game close with good 3-point shooting and ball movement over the first 10 minutes.
"It challenged our defense and we rose to the occasion," Miller said. "It was nice to see, whether you’re a starter or a guy coming in off the bench, guys played with really good effort. They were in the right place, challenged their 3-point shooting. They were 8 for 27 and for the most part those 3s were challenged, even a couple of the ones they made, and that was a big part of our game plan.
“Offensively they played consistent. It’s hard to play with only five turnovers in a 40-minute game and two of them were in the first minute. Guys are sharing the ball and know how to get the ball inside easier. I would say a lot of good things happen (when passing to) not just to Deandre but also Dusan (Ristic).
“We put together a defense and an offense. It wasn’t just offense. It wasn’t just two players. We put it together on both ends and tonight I think it was a step forward. Allonzo (Trier), one of the other things is he’s really passing the ball well. He had four assists, no turnovers, some of our best plays offensively and it’s great to see him making those types of decisions. The chemistry between him and Deandre in terms of him throwing the ball high is growing, which is a good sign. And it gets contagious. Our other players see how that works and they want to go to it. Maybe the last five or six minutes of the first half we made some great plays getting the ball inside and good things are going to happen for our team.”
The contrast between playing just two days earlier at New Mexico, with the Lobos’ fast pace and intense crowd, was dramatic considering the Bison’s more deliberate style and the fact that the game was played before a McKale Center crowd largely without students.
But Alkins said that was a good thing.
“I think we need that,” he said. “In the Pac-12 there’s all kinds of teams like that. And all kinds of teams like New Mexico, so it was good to get reps (against that style) early.”
Wasn't any update on Allonzo Trier's knee injury other than what Miller said in the press conference. He said it appeared to be at least a bone bruise but UA was waiting to see how it appears Tuesday before determining anything.
Arizona Desert Swarm's Ryan Kelapire captured video from the Pac-12 Networks of the play where Trier and NDSU's Paul Miller collided:
Here is how Allonzo Trier injured his left knee. He was helped to the locker room with a pretty bad limp. pic.twitter.com/ASi3sFW4qg— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) December 19, 2017
Our full game coverage, plus PDFs of the box score and updated UA stats, are attached to this post.