PULLMAN, Wash. – Back in the early preseason, before Rawle Alkins broke his foot and before federal investigators lofted a dark cloud over college basketball, the Arizona Wildcats were supposed to look like this:
As displayed in their 100-72 rout of Washington State on Wednesday, UA would have Deandre Ayton collecting easy double-doubles (this one by halftime). The Wildcats would have Allonzo Trier playing with remarkable efficiency in his first full season, as he hit 8 of 8 shots and scored 24 points on Wednesday.
Other “normal” things that happened for the Wildcats on Wednesday: Dusan Ristic converting half his inside buckets, and grabbing nine rebounds. And, once again, there was Alkins, back for only the second time in the Wildcats’ past five games because of renewed soreness in his previously broken right foot.
They were all there, doing as they, well … just listen to how the ever-steely Trier described what he did:
“It was just being Allonzo Trier, doing what I do,” Trier said. It’s “making the right plays, trying to be efficient, take good shots, pass when my teammates are open, be aggressive and put pressure on the defense.”
Uh-huh. He did all that, while Ayton made 11 of 12 shots from the field and had a little fun on the other side of the ball. Ayton went out to the perimeter with WSU’s stretch forwards and helped keep the Cougars to just 33.3 percent shooting in the first half and 40.7 percent overall.
“I think they were trying to (test) me on the perimeter,” Ayton said. “ I don’t think they know a big man like me can slide my feet pretty well. I work on it every day in practice. It’s really a challenge but I work on it every day. It was fun playing on the perimeter. I’m tired of playing the post. It was just boring sitting down there.”
Alkins, meanwhile, quickly shook off some initial rust and looked like the player he was supposed to be, too: Alkins hit 6 of 8 shots, including 3-pointers on three straight UA possessions during the Wildcats’ 13-0 run in the first half that pulled the Wildcats out of a tie game (20-20) for good.
It’s possible to say Alkins benefited from his teammates, of course, since the Cougars were putting plenty of defensive attention on both Trier and Ayton, as nearly everybody does.
“We were just trying to help him get going,” Trier said. “I always tell him when he’s on the same side of the court as me and when I drive, I’m gonna draw some attention and he’s gonna get wide-open shots. So I was able to get him two in a row and allowed him to get back in rhythm.”
But it’s also possible to say Alkins’ teammates benefited from him. UA coach Sean Miller had noted after UA edged Utah 74-73 last Saturday at McKale Center, that some of the defensive strategies opponents are using on Ayton and Trier are simply easier when they also don’t have to worry about Alkins.
So maybe it’s no surprise that Ayton didn’t have a double-double in the Wildcats’ previous three games, the last two of which Alkins sat out, but Wednesday he had 25 points and 11 rebounds in just 25 minutes played.
“Health is a big part of this,” Miller said. “You want your team to be healthy. You want your team to be at full strength. We’ve played quite a few games without Rawle. And we’ve struggled at times in those games, and even the games we’ve won, we’ve worn down.
“We’re a deeper team, more physical team with him. So hopefully we can have him with us and that we can stay healthy beyond him.”
There is a qualifier to all this good news for Arizona, of course: The Cougars are just 1-8 in Pac-12 play and 9-12 overall after starting the season with six straight wins.
They aren’t the kind of test the Wildcats (19-5, 9-1) will see more often the rest of the way, with things possibly getting much tougher for them on Saturday at resurgent Washington.
So when asked if Wednesday’s performance was the kind of game he expected to see, Miller replied with caution.
“I think so,” Miller said. “You know, we’re gonna really be tested on Saturday. Washington has a very talented group and they seem to be very cohesive. (New coach) Mike Hopkins has done an excellent job incorporating his style and system, and I know they’ll have a really good crowd.
“It will be one of many tests that we still have ahead of us.”