SAN JOSE – Seconds after the Arizona locker room opened for interviews Wednesday, Rawle Alkins suddenly had almost no room to breathe.
Television cameras, smartphone video cameras and voice recorders all hovered around, intending to capture some words about the most important digit in the Sweet 16: his broken right index finger.
“It’s fine,” Alkins said.
Alkins patiently answered pretty much the same question over and over and still managed to smile about it afterward.
“Nah, it’s not crazy,” Alkins said of the media swarm. “I know it’s a serious thing.”
Just a freshman, Alkins has displayed an unusual sense of outside awareness in an environment where high-level athletes often tend to be highly focused on themselves and their teammates.
If fans back home are wondering how Alkins is doing, he’s wondering how they’re doing, too.
“I know that everyone in Tucson wants to know what’s going on with the finger,” Alkins said. “But I feel fine and, you know, I’m getting better every day.”
He knows it’s an important question because the Wildcats may need every skill they have to solve what could be a deceivingly tough Xavier team Thursday in their West Region Sweet 16 game at SAP Center.
The Musketeers are a tightly knit bunch who have rallied around adversity – as much, if not more so than Arizona – and one of the reasons they have put a six-game late-season losing streak behind them is a purposeful offense and a constantly switching defense.
The Musketeers are a different team from what they were in January and a much different team than the one that kept it close against the Wildcats in the 2015 Sweet 16. That team featured center/Uber driver Matt Stainbrook; this one has basically a bunch of guys who are mostly around 6-foot-6 and willing to get guards Trevon Bluiett or J.P. Macura the ball.
“We’re a little bit smaller, little more athletic,” said Bluiett, who was held to just two points in that 2015 game. “I would say difference that year and this year’s team is we’re a lot closer and we’re all bought in to winning. That’s our No. 1 goal, and we put all of our personal agendas aside.”
UA assistant coach Mark Phelps, who is scouting the Musketeers, found that much is obvious in reviewing game video.
“Everybody from their coaching staff to the players are connected with a focus of making sure the best players and the best scorers are getting the most shots,” Phelps said. “It’s certainly the coaching staff’s directive, but it’s also players saying, ‘OK, I get it. I’m buying in.’ “
Phelps said the other striking thing about Xavier is the way they switch between their man-to-man, 2-3 zone and 1-3-1 zone defenses.
“At that ratio you expect to see a lot of zone,” Phelps said.
That’s another reason Alkins knows his finger might play a big role.
“Gotta shoot,” he says.
He’s not alone with that belief. There are multiple ways Arizona has attacked zone defenses this season, but guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright says that one may be most important Thursday.
“You have to make shots,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “At the end of the day, I think it’s going to come down to making shots.”
The good news for UA is that Alkins’ finger bone didn’t break through the skin and require stitches like Kadeem Allen’s did when he dislocated it on Feb. 14, requiring a longer and more careful healing process.
“It’s a little sore, but he has full range of motion,” Miller said of Alkins. “He’s able to catch and shoot, do all those things. With Kadeem, the hardest part was it popped out of his skin. That was a really hard situation. But with Rawle, he just had a legitimate dislocation and once it was solid and everything, he was able to go back through it.”
Miller kept Alkins out of Monday’s practice while the freshman wing returned Tuesday and said he’s been doing constant rehabilitation work with UA athletic trainer Justin Kokoskie all week.
“I’m making sure I’m keeping it moving, not just keeping it stiff,” Alkins said. “I just make it as comfortable as I can.”
After arriving in San Jose on Tuesday evening, Alkins went through UA’s practice on Wednesday at Archbishop Mitty High School before showing off a bandage that covered the index and middle fingers together during Arizona’s mandatory on-court appearance later Wednesday afternoon at SAP Center.
Alkins even performed dribbling drills right in front of security guards stationed at midcourt and attempted 35-footers (though he didn’t make any from that far out).
Through it all, Kokoskie didn’t appear to be sweating it.
“He’s done really well,” Kokoskie said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
Arizona vs. Xavier
When: 7:09 p.m.
Where: SAP Center, San Jose.