A season full of bizarre turns doubled back on Thursday, as Arizona announced star guard Allonzo Trier had been ruled ineligible indefinitely. It was revealed that Trier, a junior, recently tested positive for a banned substance, sending him to the bench in a silver sweatsuit on Thursday night at Oregon State. While the Wildcats didn’t expressly need Trier, it did need an overtime run to pull away from the plucky Beavers for a third straight win. Despite leading the Pac-12 by a game and a half with just three contests left, the final few weeks of the season will be clouded by uncertainty.
Yes, it’s complicated. Trier missed the first 19 games of last season after testing positive for trace amounts of what Arizona says is the same substance that reappeared in his system in late January, when he tested positive again. Trier claimed he ingested the banned performance-enhancer unknowingly while recovering from a car accident, which the NCAA ultimately concurred with. Arizona is appealing Trier’s suspension, but it’s unclear at this point when he might return.
Losing Trier, who trailed only teammate DeAndre Ayton among Pac-12 scorers, throws a wrench in the plans of a team that had recently appeared to be turning things around. With a nearly 70% true shooting mark, he was playing the best ball of his career. Although Trier’s ball-stopping tendencies have at times hampered Arizona in close games over the course of his three seasons, his ability to provide instant offense and floor spacing creates a massive hole for a team that was already playing with a thin rotation (to make matters worse, freshman forward Ira Lee is out with a concussion). Into the starting lineup for now is UNC-Asheville transfer Dylan Smith, who has been a frequent bench option but scored in double figures just three times this season. This is what limbo looks like.
Of course, Arizona still has the talent to make this work. It’s impossible to miss Ayton, who’s a contender for the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft and just the third player in school history to average a double-double. He’ll be needed to do even more, which he’s capable of, but will presumably face even more attention from collapsing defenses. Losing Trier makes life more difficult, but there’s more he can do as a passer to try and strike a balance. “I’ve been double-teamed my whole life. I know when a double-team’s coming, I know what side the guy’s coming from, I know how to dribble out of it.” Ayton told SI earlier this month. He’s a capable passer and as tough a cover as there is in college basketball, but perimeter players will have to step up around him.
UCLA earned a win in Tucson two weeks ago with a 3–2 zone that applied pressure whenever Arizona’s bigs caught the ball on the block. They turned Ayton into a midrange shooter, kept the ball away from Dusan Ristic and forced the Wildcats into undesirable shots. Sans Trier, it’s fair to imagine Arizona will deal with even trickier schemes to take Ayton out of his element, and the paint. If there’s a surprise contributor out of freshmen Emmanuel Akot, Brandon Randolph and Alex Barcello, it will go a long way. The fact that none have been consistent enough to earn regular minutes is probably telling.
The best recipe for now will be sophomore Rawle Alkins handling more responsibility. He scored 16 points against Oregon State and was the catalyst in overtime, hitting a pair of threes, locking down the Beavers’ leading scorer Ethan Thompson, and delivering quality passes to Ayton and Ristic. He has been a catalyst when his jumper is falling and a key tone-setter. “Many times this year Rawle [brought] some kind of toughness,” Ristic said earlier this month. “When he plays well, it affects everybody on the court, everybody plays with a chip on their shoulder with extra energy.” Alkins, who is also the team’s top perimeter defender, appears to be trending the right way health-wise, working through an early-season foot injury that began nagging him again in late January. He will take on an additional load when it comes to creating offense, but he must also handle his usual business more than ever.
After all, new problems rarely do away with old ones, and the Wildcats have been searching for stops most of the season. They’ve guarded well enough to get here but remain vulnerable to the kind of lapses that end seasons early in March. “We’ve had our challenges this year being locked in defensively,” Miller said after Arizona’s Feb. 10 win over USC, reiterating how much he’s harped on his team’s approach and need to play together. Arizona had success in its time without Trier last season, but it’s unreasonable to expect an uptick in a team that already sat among the top dozen nationally in offense efficiency. Logic suggests they’ll have to hunker down, or bow out early.
If Miller is willing to get creative, he could increase the minutes for the lanky, athletic Akot, who brings versatility but struggles to shoot from outside. Randolph is highly athletic but has looked tentative in limited playing time. Arizona has been committed to playing Ayton and Ristic together, but staggering them more often to find time for mobile big man Keanu Pinder and help pace out the Wildcats’ offense could be worth trying. It may be a stretch, but finding a new solution to the defensive woes out of necessity could benefit the team even if Trier were to come back.
From the FBI’s investigation to Alkins’s injury to a disappointing tournament trip to the Bahamas and a variety of internal suspensions, nothing has been simple for Arizona this season. But at least the Wildcats can collect some confidence from fighting through the unexpected. A trip to Oregon on Saturday is the Wildcats’ toughest test left, and a win in Eugene would leave them needing to simply split the final homestand of the season against Stanford and Cal to secure the regular-season title. The Pac-12 tournament will be a litmus test. From there, it’s the same as ever: to scratch at Final Four expectations, Arizona will have to find another gear. They’d love Trier back, but have work to do. His absence changes the equation, but doesn’t alter the reality.