As Rawle Alkins nursed a sore foot last weekend, sparsely-used Emmanuel Akot received an uptick in playing time.
The freshman forward combined for 23 minutes in Arizona’s wins over Utah and Colorado.
He played double-digit minutes in both games, and had only done so twice since Arizona returned from the Bahamas in late November.
“He is playing more because I think we’re all gaining more confidence in him,” head coach Sean Miller said.
That much was evident when Miller subbed in Akot for one of the most crucial moments of Saturday’s win against the Utes.
Up by one with nine seconds left, the freshman was tasked with defending burly Utah forward Donnie Tillman on a pivotal inbounds play.
Tillman made a cut along the baseline, but got caught underneath the basket, and when he finally received the inbounds pass he was in poor position to sink a game-winning layup over Akot’s outstretched arms.
“Emmanuel Akot was a good matchup for him, and Emmanuel did a good job,” Miller said afterward.
“I think he created some doubt on whether he would be able to get open if he went up towards the elbow and I almost feel like he broke the play off. I don’t know if I’m right. (Tillman) caught the ball under the backboard and Emmanuel’s a tough kid that has size to him, and I don’t know if he got a good shot off. So I like the way Emmanuel defended.”
That play capped off a positive homestand for Akot. He has been hindered by knee tendinitis seemingly all season, but he looked healthy and confident, even though he was held scoreless in both wins (and missed a pair of timely free throws vs. Utah).
“He’s gaining more confidence in himself, recognizing the role that he has,” Miller said.
That role is making plays on defense.
Akot is 6-foot-7, 200 pounds with great agility and long arms. Aside from maybe Alkins, no other UA perimeter player can match those tools.
“He’s not a small guy, so when he comes into the game, it looks different,” Miller said. “And I think there’s some real value there in having a bigger wing able to defend multiple positions so we’ll see where we go from here.”
Harnessing Akot’s defensive potential could be key for Arizona down the season’s final stretch.
The Wildcats’ offense is fine, ranking 13th in the country, but they need any help they can get on the other side of the ball.
Arizona places 98th in college basketball in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. No team has ever won a national championship with a defense ranking outside the top 20.
“We foul way too much and I think we’re looking at ways and areas, sometimes it’s a certain player, to do that better, not foul,” Miller said.
Saturday, that player was Akot.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire