Deandre Ayton carries Arizona on his shoulders amid high expectations

Simon Asher | The Daily Wildcat Pac-12 tournament MVP Deandre Ayton celebrates in the Arizona locker room after a 75-61 victory over USC in the Championship game at the 2018 Pac-12 Tournament on Saturday, March 10 in T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.

LAS VEGAS — After winning the regular season Pac-12 Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, Deandre Ayton won the Pac-12 Tournament MVP Saturday after he averaged 25 points and 13 rebounds and carried Arizona to the tournament championship.

“We tried to do everything we could to just contain him, because I don’t think you are going to stop a guy like that,” USC forward Nick Rakocevic said. “He went off tonight.”

Go off he did.

The 7-foot big man from Nassau, Bahamas posted back-to-back games with 32 points and at least 14 rebounds as Arizona advanced to the final round and won the tournament championship. 

In both games, Arizona’s star guards had below-average games. Allonzo Trier, who averages 18.4 points per game, scored 9 points in each game, while Rawle Alkins who averages 13.4 points per game shot just over 20 percent. 

It didn’t matter. In both games, Ayton carried the team on his strong shoulders.

Simon Asher
Arizona's Deandre Ayton shows emotion after an and-1 play in the Arizona-USC Championship game at the 2018 Pac-12 Tournament on Saturday, March 10 in T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.

But, in the first game of the tournament against Colorado, Ayton struggled. He shot 4-for-14 from the floor and only scored 10 points and six rebounds — far fewer than his career average of 20.3 points per game and 11.5 rebounds. After the game, Ayton confessed he had butterflies when he saw how big the Vegas arena was. 

“I thought I was in the NBA for a minute when I walked through the tunnel,” Ayton said.

Arizona’s head coach Sean Miller said the fact he will admit he was nervous goes to show how genuine and honest he is. 

“Not a lot of guys would admit that they are a little bit nervous, but sometimes you forget that they are that young,” Miller said. “Nineteen years old. This is his first Pac-12 Tournament.”

When you get around Ayton, you can see how young he is; he laughs and talks about playing video games with his friends like he is still in high school. However, he isn’t in high school anymore.

He was quickly thrust into the real world when ESPN published a story at the end of February claiming the FBI had a wiretap of Arizona head coach Miller discussing paying Ayton $100,000 to play for Arizona.  

Ayton said he called his mom when he heard the news. He, his mother and his lawyer called ESPN’s reports false and said he never received any money. The university ruled Ayton would continue to play, and that same week Miller announced he would continue coaching the team with the university’s support. The City of Tucson united behind its 7-foot freshman, his coach and the program. 

All was right again. 

A few weeks later, Ayton was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. Widely considered the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, he has a reasonable chance of winning NCAA National Player of the Year. 

Ayton said he knows without a doubt he is the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, but he isn’t worried about the rest of it. 

“I am just trying to win a national championship,” Ayton said after Arizona beat UCLA in the tournament. “Like what coach Miller says, ‘With team success comes individual accolades.’”

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