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Arizona without Trier: Final Four hopes on hold

17 March 2016:F Markis McDuffie (32) of the Wichita State Shockers and  G Kadeem Allen (5) of the Arizona Wildcats battle for the loose ball watched by G Allonzo Trier (11) of the Arizona Wildcats. The Wichita State Shockers defeated the Arizona Wildcats 65-55 in the first round of the NCAA Division 1 men's basketball tournament at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence Rhode Island. (Photograph by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)
Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

TUCSON, Ariz. — The Arizona basketball team has a new tradition.

Every Sean Miller press conference begins with a school official making a statement to this effect: “We will have no comment on Allonzo Trier.”

The sophomore guard hasn’t played this season for the 16th-ranked Wildcats, hasn’t suited up at all and spent Wednesday night’s game in gray sweats. His absence has been shrouded in mystery, with Miller and the program dropping the Cone of Silence around the situation.

Here’s the good news:

Trier is still with the program. He’s practicing with the team. If the hammer had fallen on Trier’s season, why would he be kicking around Tucson when he could be making some cash playing professionally and/or preparing for the NBA Draft?

The bad news: He’s still in sweats.

The worse news: Arizona needs him more than ever.

The Wildcats, way back when (like at the start of the summer), had 12 scholarship players with eligibility for this season. They are down to seven in the wake of starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright suffering a high ankle sprain Wednesday night in an 85-63 victory over Texas Southern.

He will be out for a “considerable amount of time,” Miller said.

Arizona isn’t getting back Terrance Ferguson, who opted to play professionally in Australia rather than enroll in college. The Cats aren’t getting back Ray Smith, who suffered his third career ACL injury in the team’s first exhibition game. UA isn’t getting back Talbott Denny, a local kid and graduate transfer from Lipscomb who was brought in as back-of-the-roster insurance. He suffered a torn ACL in the summer.

And, now, Jackson-Cartwright.

As for Trier, everyone waits.

I asked Pac-12 Networks analyst and former Arizona assistant/interim head coach Kevin O’Neill what Arizona’s ceiling is without Trier.

“Sweet 16 at best,” he said.

With Trier?

“Final Four.”

Sounds right.

Trier averaged 14.8 points per game as a freshman, and it was easy to envision a sophomore season in which he averaged 20 and was able to drop 25 on any given night. Combine Trier with freshman 7-footer Lauri Markkanen, and that’s one of the best combinations in the country for easy-peasy offense.

Trier’s 36.4 percent 3-point shooting was expected to improve — “I’ve never been around a player that I’ve seen in the gym more than him,” Miller said before the season — but the 6-5 guard’s strength is his ability to drive the lane, with the body control to slide past the trees and finish.

Trier made 73.1 percent of his shots at the rim last season, according to hoop-math.com. Compare that to Arizona’s touted freshman wing from a season earlier, Stanley Johnson. He made just 52.7 percent of his shots at the rim.

Arizona has managed okay without Trier so far — beating a likewise short-handed Michigan State team and losing a close game to Butler. However, the impact of his absence grows greater as the roster shrinks.

“We have had two ACLs and arguably our best player has never played,” Miller said, referring to this season’s run of bad fortune. “That’s the starting point. Where we go from here, I don’t know.”

While Jackson-Cartwright is out, Kadeem Allen will move from a wing position back to point guard — where he started most of last season. He will play both guard positions and small forward on a team that right now has only three scholarship guards available.

Markkanen, averaging a team-high 18.3 points and making 46.9 percent of his 3-pointers (15 of 32), has had to accelerate the learning curve by playing center and small forward, in addition to his natural power forward spot.

“That’s not easy,” Miller said.

But that’s the world Arizona lives in right now.

It’s not easy.

Who becomes the eighth man in the rotation?

I don’t know,” Miller said.

Perhaps Arizona soon will get good news on Trier. That would get the rotation to eight. Presumably, Jackson-Cartwright will come back at some point in the Pac-12 season, which begins Dec. 30 at Cal.

That nine-man rotation — which includes rapidly-seasoned freshmen Kobi Simmons (13 points per game) and Rawle Alkins (10.9) — could beat anyone in the country by the time March rolls around… but the centerpiece to any glorious scenario is Trier.

Welcome to Arizona limbo.

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