LAS VEGAS —
Two years ago this week, Derrick White scored 50 points against Colorado School of Mines in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. He was so good that even though he played for the Colorado Springs Mountain Lions, people in the Pac-12 noticed.
The same Derrick White, now a senior wearing a Colorado Buffaloes uniform, was once again the was the best player on the court, scoring 31 points against Arizona in Thursday’s Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals.
But this time, instead of playing against the School of Mines’ Kaan Korkmaz and Gokul Natesan, White and the Buffaloes were overwhelmed by the UA’s around-the-horn offense.
This was not a game for the Kanns and the Gokuls. Arizona rolled 92-78.
Arizona had its most symmetrical box score of the season, at just the right time. It was five-part harmony.
“Don’t bring your name,” said UA freshman Rawle Alkins, “bring your game.”
Alkins, the A-Train, did just that, scoring all 15 of his points in the second half. It was infectious. Allonzo Trier scored 19. Kadeem Allen 13.
“They were a juggernaut,” said CU coach Tad Boyle.
More importantly, Lauri Markkanen rediscovered his 3-point touch and Dusan Ristic’s paint game was back. Together they scored 35 points, the most they had scored together since beating Arizona State on Jan. 12.
It was like the Gang’s All Here Again.
Now comes the hard stuff. The final two days of the Pac-12 Tournament will be like Nolan Ryan replacing a knuckleballer in the ninth inning. But after six weeks of semi-scuffling, the Wildcats delivered their A game.
If Markkanen was as worried about his 3-point touch as everyone else in Tucson — he was 4 for 28 dating to that ignominious loss at Oregon five weeks ago — he put on a poker face as he sat in a corner of the team’s T-Mobile Arena dressing room Thursday.
“I’ve been feeling good all the time,” he said. “I’ve been shooting well in practice. I’ve got the same mindset now as I did all year.”
Two teammates nearby, who overheard the conversation, playfully pushed Markkanen’s shoulder and laughed, as if to say “oh, sure, no worries, pal.”
But after two or three more reporters asked about his recent drop in accuracy, Markkanen made a slight correction.
“I’ve been shooting extra shots every day, more than all season,” he said. “I would shoot 30 minutes before practice and 30 minutes after practice.”
When someone wanted to get a better story, you know, something like “a slumping star who shows up at the Richard Jefferson Gym at midnight to take an extra 500 shots, “ Markkanen put an end to the speculation.
“No, I’m only sweating once a day,” he said, smiling. “I’ll go lift weights, work out, go to practice, take some more shots, and that’s it. Then I’m done. Then I rest.”
Arizona won’t be resting Friday, but they will be sweating.
The top of the Pac-12 is a brute this year, and there will be no more undersized Colorado Buffaloes on the schedule. To beat Oregon or UCLA or whoever remains, the Wildcats will almost require the moon to be in the seventh hour and Jupiter to be aligned with Mars.
The last two days at T-Mobile will be like the old Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, or the ACC Tournament on Tobacco Road.
“Colorado is a tough out, let me tell you,” said Miller. “It was a good test for our team and we passed that test.”
Miller understands this business more than anyone in the audience and anyone sitting on the sofa, pleading for Markkanen to, please, please, bury a 3.
The coach said he sometimes finds himself in bed late at night asking himself: “Do we have it? … Do we have that will?”
On Thursday, his team had it, all of it.
Arizona averaged 1.28 points per possession, which it surpassed only in victories over UCLA, ASU and USC. And it limited the Buffaloes to 39 percent shooting, the first time since a league-opening sweep at Cal and Stanford that it held two consecutive opponents under 40 percent.
If that’s not good timing, what is?
So what happens if it all goes bust Friday night in the late, late game at T-Mobile? Will it make any difference?
Miller said he charted some of Lute Olson’s early losses in the old Pac-10 tournament and has decided “they didn’t necessarily do well in the tournament, but they caught tremendous momentum after the tournament and played their best a week later.”
In 2003, Arizona went 17-1 to win the conference championship and then stunningly lost a first-round game to the worst UCLA team in 60 years, 96-89 in overtime, falling to a Bruins team that finished 10-19.
A week later the Wildcats won a historic 96-95 double overtime game against Gonzaga and rolled to the Elite Eight, a final possession against Kansas from the Final Four.
It’s too early to say “bring on the Zags,” but it’s about time to believe Arizona has corrected its February swoon and can play with anybody.