The amount of adversity Arizona basketball has faced this season would seem comical if it wasn’t so sad. Consider:
- Ray Smith, a five-star recruit with legitimate NBA aspirations, was tragically forced to retire from the sport in November after tearing his ACL in the season’s first exhibition game. It was the third straight year Smith tore his ACL.
- Allonzo Trier, the team’s leading scorer last season and a front-runner for Pac-12 Player of the Year, hasn’t played a game all season and the program refuses to reveal why. There has been no update on this situation since Trier was pulled from Pac-12 Media Day in October.
- Two months after verbally committing to Arizona, five-star recruit Terrance Ferguson announced he would play professionally in Australia instead. Ferguson was the MVP of the Nike Hoops Summit and is a projected first-round NBA draft pick. He would have added shooting and athleticism on the wing for Arizona.
- On the brink of the team’s biggest non-conference game of the season against Gonzaga, starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright suffered a high ankle sprain and missed the next six games.
This would have been enough to sabotage the season for a lesser program, but it hasn’t happened to Arizona. After beating Utah, 66-56, on Thursday night, the Wildcats are now 14-2 overall, 3-0 in the Pac-12, and on an eight-game winning streak. Their only two losses are to still-unbeaten Gonzaga and Butler, a team that just knocked off No. 1 Villanova this week.
How has Sean Miller rescued the season with only eight scholarship players? He can point to the freshman trio of Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons, and Lauri Markkanen.
Through 16 games, the freshmen are Arizona’s three leading scorers. Markkanen is averaging a team-best 15.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while also being Miller’s best three-point shooter (32 makes on 43.2 percent shooting). Alkins is second in scoring (12.4 points per game), rebounding (5.9 per game), and made threes (20). Simmons is close behind with 12.2 points per game.
The freshmen are also 1-2-3 in minutes per game for Arizona right now. Without them, this would have been a doomed campaign for one of the most consistent programs in the sport.
This always looked like a great class for Arizona. Alkins and Simmons were five-star recruits and McDonald’s All-Americans who Miller was able to pull from Brooklyn and Georgia, respectively. Markannen came over from Finland with tons of hype to effectively replace current UCLA star T.J. Leaf shortly after he decommitted from Arizona months earlier.
All three have lived up to their advanced billing. Markkanen has been every bit as good as advertised as a pick-and-pop 7-footer and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him taken in the top 10 of the draft. Alkins is built like a brick house and has already become a quality defender within Miller’s packline scheme. Simmons was supposed to be the most raw of the three, but his ridiculous athleticism has helped make him a contributor from day one:
This type of high-level recruiting is nothing new for Miller. This program pulls more five-stars than anyone this side of Kentucky and Duke. Had Ferguson honored his commitment, it would have been the fifth time in the last six years Arizona finished with the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, according to 247 Sports. (Instead, it dropped down to No. 6 without Ferguson).
It’s only getting better next year with the addition of the No. 1 overall recruit in the country, center DeAndre Ayton. For the five first-rounders and three lottery picks (Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson and Derrick Williams) Miller has produced during his time at Arizona, he’s never had a player as dynamic as Ayton.
For now, Arizona still has hopes of competing in a revamped Pac-12 that features two powerhouse teams in UCLA and Oregon. Miller knows he won’t have depth on his side, but he’s been able to keep Arizona afloat by getting his youngest players to contribute immediately. Losing this much talent so suddenly would have spelled disaster for anyone else, but somehow Arizona keeps winning.