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Raising Arizona

The Wildcats are no strangers to the second week of March Madness, but they’ve struggled to move past that point. Can guards Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright help them break through?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It was nearing closing time in Las Vegas and Arizona was squandering its chance to cash out. The Wildcats had led Oregon by as many as 14 points in the Pac-12 championship game on March 11, but with less than a minute left in regulation the advantage had narrowed to four. The sea of red that filled T-Mobile Arena had gone from euphoric to anxious. After nearly 40 minutes of cheering for a team that was comfortably ahead, Arizona fans began to dread the worst.

Just a day before, while in the cramped confines of their locker room, the Wildcats had acknowledged that they wanted revenge. The only previous time they had faced the Ducks in 2016–17 they were blown out, 85–58, in Eugene on February 4, one of four losses on the season. On the brink of a collapse against an opponent it desperately wanted to beat, Arizona turned to its veteran guards, junior Parker Jackson-Cartwright and redshirt senior Kadeem Allen, to ensure that it’d finish the job.

Looking to cut the lead to two with 56 seconds left, Oregon’s Dylan Ennis drove to the basket like a dart headed for the bull’s-eye. He had been scoring with ease at the rim all game, but this time Allen stayed with him and slid perfectly in front of Ennis to draw a charge. After Wildcats star forward Lauri Markkanen missed a pair of free throw attempts, Oregon had another chance to pull within one possession, and Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks hoisted a 3-point try from the top of the key. The shot missed and the ball skied into the expanse of the arena, where Jackson-Cartwright, all 71 inches of him, propelled himself at a perfect angle, extended his arms, and grasped the ball before any of the Ducks big men could.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Getty Images)
Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Getty Images)

“He jumped like 12 feet,” Wildcats head coach Sean Miller marveled after the 83–80 victory. “It’s one of my favorite plays I’ve ever seen.”

Allen and Jackson-Cartwright aren’t Arizona’s headliners. That distinction belongs to the freshman Markkanen and sophomore guard Allonzo Trier, while freshman guard Rawle Alkins boasts the upside of a one-and-done prospect. Yet for a squad that’s dealt with its fair share of setbacks, from five-star recruit Ray Smith’s early retirement to Trier’s 19-game suspension for a positive PED test, the backcourt duo has been the pillars holding this Wildcats team up — and perhaps the guys who could lift it from a Sweet 16 showdown with no. 11 seed Xavier to a long-awaited Final Four berth. “They’re our heart and soul,” Alkins says.

Allen is a slasher who can rebound as well as he scores and passes. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound guard may be soft-spoken off the court, but his game has grown increasingly loud. He averages 9.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists, playing with purpose after spending two years at juco Hutchinson Community College in Kansas before his arrival in Tucson. “We’re led by a really interesting guy,” Miller says. “Think about it. The [2014] national junior college player of the year who redshirted. Doesn’t happen a lot.”

This season Allen has lived beyond the arc as much as he’s inhabited the paint. He’s shooting 41.7 percent from deep, nearly six percentage points higher than in 2015–16 despite taking 0.7 more 3s per game. He balances out his shooting with a propensity for attacking the basket, simultaneously coercing opponents into playing help defense and opening lanes and shots for big men such as Markkanen and sophomore center Chance Comanche. “He’s just emerged, and [the players] will tell you, every day with his effort, it’s incredible,” Miller says.

Per 100 possessions, Allen is averaging 7.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 3.2 steals. His defensive efficiency, among players with at least 500 minutes, has ranked alongside the Pac-12’s best during each of his two years at Arizona. Young guys like Alkins have observed Allen’s approach and mirrored it. Heading into the season, Alkins was primarily concerned with his scoring output. Allen pulled him aside and offered advice. If you want to play, Allen stressed, you need to play defense.

Miller says he usually worries about freshmen in March, but after Arizona beat Colorado 92–78 in the opening round of the conference tournament, the head coach credited the win to Alkins’s defensive performance. Allen’s mentorship has brought along the talented freshman, who has emerged as a staple of the Wildcats lineup. “You could say [Allen and Parker-Cartwright] are a big reason why I’ve played so much this season,” Alkins says. “[Allen] is one of the best, if not the best, defender on the team.”

If Allen is the mainstay of this group, then it’s the man known as “PJC” who ignites the Arizona transition game while playing with no regard for the measurements that are supposed to confine him. Jackson-Cartwright is a 5-foot-11 point guard who plays much bigger than his frame, and whose junior season has followed a somewhat unconventional script. He opened the campaign by playing at least 30 minutes in each of his first six games, averaging nine points and six assists over that span. He suffered a high ankle sprain in an 85–63 win over Texas Southern on November 30, though, and missed six games as a result. Even when he returned to full health, his minutes dropped as he struggled to find his rhythm and shot.

The mental hurdle Jackson-Cartwright had to clear after being out for so long was daunting. But Allen remembers that his teammate just kept shooting, finding extra time to try to regain his stroke. Over Arizona’s last 10 games, Jackson-Cartwright is averaging just under 30 minutes, shooting a scorching 65.5 percent from 3, and dishing out nearly four assists per contest. In that same stretch, he’s averaged only one turnover.

“Guys aren’t going after him [for his size] anymore,” Miller says. “He’s one of our team’s best defenders and he’s playing at the top of his game.”

Teammates rave about the amount of work Jackson-Cartwright has put in, just as they’re quick to point out how aggressive Allen has become late in the season. As anyone familiar with college basketball knows, peaking around March is a scarce quality held in the highest demand.

One week after its dramatic conference championship win over Oregon, Arizona found itself in another predicament. The Wildcats, the no. 2 seed in the West region, trailed no. 7 seed St. Mary’s by two points in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and with 12:30 remaining in the second half Allen rushed Gaels forward Calvin Hermanson over a screen. The pressure forced Hermanson to cough up the ball, which Allen secured with magnetic authority. The redshirt senior then made a beeline for the hoop and slammed home a dunk to kick-start a 27–16 run, a 69–60 Wildcats win, and a trip to the Sweet 16. In the final minute, Jackson-Cartwright once again made a key defensive rebound that sealed the victory.

Kadeem Allen (Getty Images)
Kadeem Allen (Getty Images)

The upperclassman tandem of Allen and Jackson-Cartwright is known for making effort plays on defense, but what they do in terms of handling the game goes beyond these types of moments. With both on the floor, Arizona moves at a pace that suits its top 20 offense by KenPom’s efficiency ratings. The Wildcats’ attack is fronted by Markkanen and Trier, the team’s two leading scorers and projected NBA draft picks, but would be jagged without the cornerstones who make up 47 percent of the roster’s total assists on the season. “They see the inside, they know how to attack the gaps and find us in those gaps, but they also know how to attack and get to the bucket,” Comanche says. “So, the next time they attack, our man helps on them and that leaves us open. It’s a huge impact on the game.”

“I think we’re the best backcourt in the country,” Allen said following the team’s victory over Oregon. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”

Allen and Jackson-Cartwright finished the Pac-12 title game with smiles on their faces and pieces of the net draped around their necks. Neither had been named the tourney’s most valuable player (that was Trier), nor did they make the all-tournament team (like Markkanen). Still, they’d achieved what they sought from the time they saw Stanley Johnson, T.J. McConnell, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson cut down the same nets after beating Oregon in the 2015 Pac-12 tournament. Back then, they’d gotten a taste of what it felt like to win at that level; this time, they were the architects replicating the same feat. “I experienced it, I was a part of the team, but I wasn’t out there playing,” Allen says of the 2015 tournament run. “Every year is different,” Jackson-Cartwright says. “And I just love this team.”

The 2015 Arizona team lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, a year after the 2014 squad had endured the same fate. Since 2001, the Wildcats have not advanced past that stage of the tourney. Though their rosters have spelled out the possibility of a Final Four berth, what’s looked good on paper hasn’t materialized into championship results. As Allen and Jackson-Cartwright relished their accomplishments that night in Vegas, they couldn’t help but hope that the nets that adorned their necks would be followed by another set in a few weeks. Now just two wins away from reaching a Final Four that will be played in Glendale, they can visualize winning the title.

On Thursday night against Xavier, Markkanen and Trier will lead Arizona, the former launching 3s in a style reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki and the latter showcasing his dynamic scoring ability. Look closer, however, and there will be Allen and Jackson-Cartwright, not quite as prominent, but every bit as crucial to the Wildcats’ chances. Having seen but never reached the mountaintop, they’re ready to take the final step, and to take the rest of their teammates there with them.