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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Cats mold into contender over winter break

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Parker Jackson-Cartwright (0) shoots through Utah defense, Jan. 5, 2017 in McKale Center.

It’s been over a month since the Wildcats lost their last game to the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Dec. 3 in Los Angeles. Since then, they’ve been on a nine-game tear, including capturing their first four Pac-12 Conference games.

After the loss to the Bulldogs, Arizona rebounded with wins over UC Irvine and Missouri. Then they, and the rest of the UA student body, wrapped up their final exams. Students went home for the holidays and many Tucsonans hit the road for a winter vacation.

Not the Wildcats.

They were here taking care of business and opening conference play with four consecutive victories. Here’s a look at what you missed while you were gone.

Lopes Rising, and a couple of blowouts

For the first time in program history, Arizona matched up with Grand Canyon University in what could turn in to another annual in-state matchup.

The Lopes were coming off of an impressive performance against the Louisville Cardinal, and they boasted one of the nation’s leading scorers in senior guard DeWayne Russell. They were able to keep the game with the Wildcats close at times, in large part due to the support of traveling Lopes fans.

“In my eight years, I’ve never seen a student section in McKale filled with the visitors,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “They had a whole section and you could just tell they had a great spirit about what they are doing and that’s to Grand Canyon’s credit.”

Kadeem Allen and Kobi Simmons were able to hold Russell to 19 points on 21 shots and Arizona started winter break with a 64-54 victory.

They were on the road again for their fourth neutral-court matchup of the season when they met the Texas A&M Aggies in Houston. It was Arizona’s best performance of the season, but it was also their most troubling.

The Wildcats held a 21-point lead with 5:05 to go, and had four players in double figures. They allowed Texas A&M to bring the game within two points with 22 seconds left after giving up a 20-3 run to the Aggies over the final five minutes.

“For a large portion of the game that was our best effort,” Miller said. “We didn’t play as a team [late in the game] nearly well enough and when you don’t and you play against a good team they can make a run.”

They held on for a 67-63 victory and headed back to McKale to renew an old rivalry with New Mexico.

Arizona cruised to a 77-46 victory over the Lobos and had five players score in double figures, including a career-high 14 points for sophomore center Chance Comanche. It was the final game in Arizona’s non-conference slate, and the team had a short holiday break before heading into conference play.

Pac-12 play begins in the Bay, and there’s still an elephant in the room

Arizona kicked off Pac-12 play with a trip to the bay area to face off with the California Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal.

After trailing 32-26 at the half against the Bears, Kobi Simmons quickly put Arizona in the driver’s seat. The freshman scored 10 points in the second half, including scoring on three straight possessions for Arizona. The Wildcats had been finding their identity, and the game against the Bears certainly confirmed one thing: not many in the country can stay in front of Simmons.

Arizona defeated the Bears 67-62, and began the new year with a 91-52 demolition of Stanford two nights later. Five players scored in double figures, and can be best summarized by Kobi Simmon’s windmill dunk to cement the win in Palo Alto.

Arizona was able to sweep their first conference home series with a 66-56 victory over the Utah Utes and an 82-73 triumph over the Colorado Buffaloes.

Arizona’s identity under Sean Miller has always been about defense, and this season is no different. Arizona ranks 11th in the nation in adjusted defense according to kenpom.com and ranks number one in scoring defense in the Pac-12 early on.

Arizona junior center Dusan Ristic found his rhythm during winter break and has come on as Arizona’s most efficient player shooting 56 percent from the field. Simmons and Alkins continue to be one of the nation’s best freshmen duos, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright overcame his high ankle sprain to average six assists per game.

Miller has said senior Kadeem Allen is, “right up there with the best” defenders he’s seen during his time at Arizona, and freshman sensation Lauri Markkanen continues to play on another level and give the Wildcats a unique dynamic they haven’t quite had before.

With how well everything has gone so far for the Wildcats, one thing is clear: there’s an elephant in the room, and it remains Allonzo Trier’s unknown status.

Trier hasn’t participated in any of Arizona’s 17 games so far, and after averaging 14.8 points per game last year, he was expected to lead this young Arizona team. Some in Tucson believed his return would come against the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday, as that game marked the halfway point of his suspension, but Trier was once again in sweats.

It’s a mystery as to whether or not Trier will play at all this season. Miller has given no concrete information about the situation.

“I hope [Trier] has an opportunity to play this year…I’ll leave it at that,” Miller said.

With or without Trier, this team’s ceiling will begin to unveil when they travel to Los Angeles to face the Trojans and the fourth-ranked UCLA Bruins next week.

So, now you’re all caught up. Enjoy the ride from here.


Follow Christopher Deak on Twitter.


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