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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Despite loss to Butler, Wildcats find players stepping up in different ways

Rebecca Noble / The Daily Wildca
Arizona guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright tips in a basket amid heavy defense during the red and blue scrimmage at McKale Center on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.

There was always an alpha dog for Arizona men’s basketball to lean on late in games, especially in the Sean Miller era. This season has highlighted multiple alpha dogs, despite the recent loss to Butler in the Las Vegas Invitational.

It was Derrick Williams when Miller first came to Tucson, Mark Lyons when the program was just getting over the hump to national prominence and Nick Johnson’s leadership and assertiveness late in games. Miller has coached some of Arizona’s most versatile teams. But this season’s team is different, which could play in the Wildcats favor come March.

There isn’t a “go-to” player on this team, and Miller said after beating Northern Colorado that there are certain tasks he wants to accomplish with different lineups. Mixing and matching players to determine who’s going to be reliable down the stretch has been Miller’s moto thus far. But it starts and finishes with freshman forward Lauri Markkanen.

He fouled out against Butler with less than three minutes left in the game, but has accumulated heavy minutes so far this season. Markkanen combined for 74 minutes against Northern Colorado and Santa Clara.

“With your best players, sometimes you have to allow them to play through fatigue,” Miller said. “We don’t want anyone on our team to play 38 minutes a game, but there are those games where they’re going to be called on to play more.”

Markkanen is capable of taking control of games and stretching the floor with his size and ability to shoot. He shot 15-for-23 combined from the field for 48 points in the first pair of home games against Cal-State Bakersfield and Sacred Heart.

“We really feed off of him,” junior Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “He hits big shots and he takes big shots and he’s really confident.”

As the season goes on and teams recognize that without Allonzo Trier, Markkanen is the more polished player, they’re going to attack him the same way Butler did. Arizona had a lead late in the game against the Bulldogs, but eliminating the outside and inside presence made the game so much easier for Butler.

Even in that game, freshman guard Kobi Simmons got to the bucket and took over in the second half. This is the norm because against Michigan State, Simmons finished with a career-high 18 points and shot 2-for-3 from 3-pointer. So he can score in multiple forms depending on the night.

Those are just the freshman and if anyone knows Miller, he loves the veterans just as much, if not more than the young guys because of the experience they sprinkle in. Jackson-Cartwright, for example, will probably never take over a game in scoring, but his passing can have a dramatic effect on the outcomes of games.

Jackson-Cartwright scored 15 points and had 11 assists against Northern Colorado, with 10 of them coming in the second half. Plus, he had no turnovers, so not only was Jackson-Cartwright finding other players to score, he was doing it in an efficient way.

“[Northern Colorado] was Parker’s best game at Arizona in my opinion, because everything he did was important,” Miller said. “Parker has definitely gotten stronger, but what he is, is experience. Parker has learned how to play the game. He knows the system and has been in college for three years, and he’s always been someone we trust the ball with in his hands.”

It was a given that with Trier out for undisclosed reasons, someone was bound to rise to the occasion, and the top candidate was Markkanen. But after starting the season 5-1, Miller has options. Those options make teams that are preparing for Arizona second guess certain defensive styles because of how the Wildcats can hurt teams in different ways.

The Wildcats may not look like a Final Four team just yet, but Arizona’s Swiss army knife of alpha dogs is a force to be reckoned with this season.

Follow Justin Spears on Twitter.

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