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Concerns piling up for Arizona Wildcats after rough trip to Bahamas
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Arizona Basketball

Concerns piling up for Arizona Wildcats after rough trip to Bahamas

Arizona coach Sean Miller can’t be pleased with how the defense has played through six games this season.

When the major Top 25 polls are released Monday, Arizona could make the exceedingly rare slide from No. 2 all the way out of them.

Of course, that’s probably the least of the Wildcats’ worries this week. After finishing in last place at the Battle 4 Atlantis, with stunning losses to North Carolina State, SMU and Purdue, the Wildcats have a pretty long to-do list this week heading into their seven remaining nonconference games.

Here’s five concerns that might be on that list:

1. The offense is unbalanced.

Through the first five games of the season, freshman forward Deandre Ayton and junior guard Allonzo Trier were a powerful 1-2 offensive punch, with Trier pulling down 20 points and Ayton collecting double-doubles each time.

But Trier became less efficient and more turnover prone as the Battle 4 Atlantis went on — he averaged four turnovers a game in the Bahamas — while Ayton and freshman wing Brandon Randolph were the only double-digit scorers in UA’s 89-64 loss to No. 18 Purdue on Friday.

Ayton had 22 points on 10-for-14 field goals shooting against Purdue while Trier was 3 for 10 for eight points and had four turnovers.

While Ayton averaged 22.0 points and 12.3 rebounds over the three games in his home country, the rest of his teammates averaged just 47.3 points collectively.

Part of the problem has been injuries: Returning starter Rawle Alkins remains out with a broken foot, while Randolph has been slowly returning from a concussion he suffered on Nov. 5. Randolph posted by far his best regular-season outing on Friday, with 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting against the Boilermakers.

After a concussion, “you don’t just snap your fingers and say ‘OK, I’m back,’ “ Miller said. “You could see he has a scoring punch. He’s one of many freshmen who will keep getting better.”

2. They can’t shoot 3s.

There’s an oddly low ceiling at the Imperial Ballroom at the Atlantis, not much more than twice as high as the top of the backboard. But every other team had to deal with it, too.

On Wednesday, Arizona hit just 2 of 17 from 3-point range against North Carolina State when the Wolfpack hit 8 of 20. The contrast was even worse on Friday: UA was 3 of 17 against Purdue from 3 while the Boilermakers hit 11 of 22.

Overall, the Wildcats shot just 22.0 percent from 3-point range over their three games in the Bahamas, with Trier 3 for 16.

Alkins’ absence may have been a factor, too. He shot 37.0 percent from 3 last season and has worked to improve that number in the offseason.

3. Their defense just isn’t very good.

In probably what is the most painful news for Miller, the Wildcats were easily screened out for open shots and beaten off the dribble on a regular basis, except for their Thursday game against SMU (when they counterbalanced that with 20 turnovers).

The UA gave up 44.7 percent shooting to its three Atlantis opponents and was particularly carved up in the final game against Purdue — when the Boilermakers worked the ball around well enough to find open shots that led to 57.4 percent shooting overall, including half of its 3-pointers.

Part of the problem has been UA’s inability to find defensive stoppers. Miller spoke during the preseason about installing freshman Emmanuel Akot in that role, but Akot dropped off in the Bahamas.

Miller did not start Akot in the Wildcats’ first two Atlantis games, saying sophomore Dylan Smith was playing better in practice, while Akot played only four minutes in the opener against N.C. State.

Akot started against Purdue but played just 10 minutes because Miller said his knee was bothering him. Akot wound up averaging just 12.0 minutes in the three games, going scoreless and being a limited defensive factor.

4. PJC needs more help.

Ideally, all key players get their minutes shaved a bit when playing three games in three days during a nonconference multi-team event. But Arizona leaned on Parker Jackson-Cartwright for 34 minutes in both of its first two Atlantis games, and it showed.

PJC had just five points on an uncharacteristic outing Thursday against SMU, with three assists to three turnovers, when backup point guard Alex Barcello was ineffective in six minutes plays, with two turnovers.

On Friday against Purdue, Barcello missed all three of his shots and had no assists to one turnover, but he did play 13 minutes, allowing Jackson-Cartwright to play just 25 — during which he dished seven assists to one turnover.

The UA has toyed with Trier and Akot as other point guard options, but neither has played there significantly.

5. The elephant in the room.

If Arizona’s players and/or coaches are being affected by the ongoing investigations behind the scenes, you’ll have to speculate. Miller isn’t saying.

But the fact is that Arizona is down one assistant coach because Book Richardson was arrested on federal bribery and fraud charges on Sept. 26, as part of the FBI’s sweeping investigation into college basketball.

The school has since commissioned an independent investigation to look into the potential NCAA violations involved.

Meanwhile — in what may or may not be related to the independent investigation — Arizona suspended another assistant coach, Mark Phelps, for two games because of an unspecified NCAA violation — and sat out senior forward Keanu Pinder for an unspecified NCAA violation.

The Wildcats also sat out sophomore guard Dylan Smith for two exhibition and one regular-season game for an unspecified violation of team rules.

But, when asked if he believes the investigations may have crept into the minds of his team after its third loss Friday, Miller offered the same answer he’s had since they began.

“Our focus is just on the season right now,” Miller said.

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