Now that Rawle Alkins is back, the next step for the Arizona Wildcats is moving him back into the starting lineup — and it appears it will happen fairly soon.
Head coach Sean Miller said Wednesday that he believes Alkins is ready to start, though he is unsure if the sophomore guard will do so Saturday at New Mexico.
“I think he is as long as he’s able to get through these practices here and we take a look at it, I think it’s just a matter of time before we make that move,” Miller said. “That’s not going to be at expense of anybody that’s currently starting as much as putting our five best players out there at the opening tip and the players that deserve it.”
Alkins, who would undoubtedly replace Brandon Randolph at small forward, played 22 minutes in his season debut last Saturday against Alabama, checking in for Randolph just three minutes into the first half.
Alkins did not experience any soreness afterward, Miller said, and he should see an uptick in playing time against the Lobos whether he starts or not.
He has earned it, after all — Alkins has won the gold jersey in all five practices he has participated in since returning from a broken foot that sidelined him for the first nine games.
“It wasn’t that we gave it to him as a charity, he clearly earned it and that’s quite a statement,” Miller said. “You don’t practice for that long and come in and five consecutive practices you end up being the best player.”
Alkins finished with seven points (2-6 FG, 0-3 3PT), three assists, two rebounds, two turnovers, a block, and a steal in his debut.
Miller said after the game that he thought Alkins played in stretches and that his conditioning wasn’t its best, but that will improve as he gets back up to speed.
“He’s a better player than he was last year. I’m anxious for him to get to that level. Like I cautioned him and everybody, you don’t just snap your fingers and magically he’s there,” Miller said Wednesday. “There’s going to be to a process for both our team and him. That process thank goodness has already started and I think each game he’ll be more and more comfortable. And we will be more comfortable as a team.”
More confident, too — Miller said there’s “no doubt” Alkins’ return has already lifted UA’s team confidence, which was lacking during the its three-game losing streak in the Bahamas.
“Some guys have the confidence where you look them in the eye and just know they believe and that they’re ready,” Miller said. “When you have a group like ours which we have so many new faces, I think it’s really healthy to have somebody who has that confidence and that look in their eye that they believe, and Rawle has both."
Arizona’s defense has struggled this season, ranking 226th in defensive efficiency, but Alkins is already making his presence felt on that end of the floor.
“He plays the game with a lot of passion,” said UA forward Ira Lee. “Like you saw, he had three stops. He had the one where he rolled on the court for a ball, so we definitely need that right now.”
Arizona, a team that relies several freshmen like Lee, also needs Alkins’ voice.
“He talks a lot, but he can back up what he says,” Lee said. “We need that because we’re a very quiet team right now."
Miller believes Arizona has improved across the board since its three-game skid, which is evidenced by the team’s four-game winning streak, including tough wins over UNLV, Texas A&M, and Alabama.
The Wildcats’ resurgence has lifted them back into the Top 25 and, with Alkins back, they should only continue to rise in the polls from here.
“If you would’ve had high hopes for this year’s team, I would think that you would have that feeling in large part because of the return of Allonzo (Trier) and Rawle with Dusan (Ristic) and Parker (Jackson-Cartwright) as seniors and then the freshman class obviously anchored by Deandre (Ayton),” Miller said.
“Rawle … he’s only played in one game and I’d say he’s 60 percent the player he can be. We haven’t been at full strength and I’m hoping we can have the luxury of getting there and playing our best basketball down the road.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire