The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team rallied to beat Saint Mary’s 69-60 in the NCAA Tournament second round and advance to the Sweet 16 against Xavier, Sean Miller’s old team.
TUCSON — That shot.
All anyone ever wants to talk about is Lauri Markkanen’s ability to shoot the ball.
It’s understandable — the freshman is 7 feet tall with one of the quickest shot releases of anyone in the NCAA Tournament, guards included. Once he gets the ball in his hands, with a sliver of space, he’s probably firing away.
He’s not only offense anymore, though.
Markkanen has become a better defender despite questions about his development. It’s paying dividends as Arizona prepares to face Xavier in Thursday’s Sweet 16 game in San Jose, Calif.
Consider: In Arizona’s first 30 games, Markkanen had 12 blocks, an average of 0.4 per game. In the past six games, Markkanen has blocked seven shots, a team-high average of 1.2 per game. That includes three in the season finale against Arizona State, one each against UCLA and Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament and two more against Saint Mary’s on Saturday.
RELATED: Once again, Wildcats’ Sean Miller crosses paths with Xavier, Chris Mack
“I think I’ve progressed a lot,” Markkanen said after Saturday’s win. “Basically we just work on defense every day, so it’s hard not to get better at it.”
UA guard Allonzo Trier said Markkanen’s defensive breakthrough has been “big.”
“You got to remember: He’s a 7-footer, too, so we expect him to make those plays — and when he does, that’s big for our team,” Trier said. “When he can do that, it’s a game-changer.”
Markkanen’s blocks made an impact, particularly the two against Saint Mary’s star center Jock Landale. The Aussie big man had been bullying Arizona’s rotation of post men Saturday. In the first half, Landale made 5 of 6 shots for 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Landale made his first shot in the second half then proceeded to miss three in a row, the third the result of Markkanen’s defensive stop.
RELATED: Wildcats need ‘tough guy’ Rawle Alkins at his best
Landale received a pass on the right side of the low post, backed Markkanen down, muscled his way closer to the rim. Markkanen stayed with him and Landale, who can score with either hand, turned and went up with both hands. Markkanen stopped Landale in his tracks, blocking the ball away.
“He went out there and out-toughed him, really,” Comanche said.
At that point, Arizona led the Gaels 53-48 with 8:02 remaining. Markkanen blocked Landale again at the 3:04 mark, with Arizona up 61-55. Both stops helped prevent a Saint Mary’s comeback.
“Lauri’s post defense was terrific down the home stretch,” UA coach Sean Miller said.
Said Markkanen: “I got a little bit more comfortable as the game went on. I just tried to be as physical as I can and don’t let him get the ball. But of course, he can get it sometimes.”
Defense isn’t only about blocking shots, though, and Markkanen must continue to improve if he is to be a force in the NBA. Draft Express analyst Mike Schmitz says Markkanen is “fine” defending the perimeter because “he’s got good feet.”
MORE: Wildcats’ Sweet 16 game time announced
“It’s tough if you’re a young big and you struggle at that end a little bit,” Schmitz said. “He’s not that long, and he’s not that strong. Those are the two things that have maybe limited his ceiling a little bit.”
Still, there’s no doubt he’s improving. During the first weekend of Pac-12 play, Markkanen was tasked with guarding Cal’s Ivan Rabb. The 6-9 Rabb had his way against Markkanen and other UA defenders, scoring 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting and grabbing 16 rebounds.
When Cal came to McKale Center on Feb. 11, Markkanen helped hold Rabb to just four points on 2-of-7 shooting. The Golden Bears forward grabbed just three rebounds.
“I guess I’ve been working on my defense all season,” Markkanen said. “But during Pac-12 play I think I got a lot better.”
About the blocks, Markkanen said: “Of course it feels good because our team needed them.”
If Arizona is going to advance to its first Final Four in 16 years, it could use some more of that.
That’s not a question mark.