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Arizona’s bench determining if Wildcats sink or swim

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Several factors go into winning basketball games — shooting, rebounding, limiting turnovers, and playing sound defense to name a few — but for the Arizona Wildcats, bench scoring can be viewed as the most determining factor in their success.

Their bench is averaging 18.2 points per game this season, a figure that swings drastically in wins and losses. The unit is averaging 23.3 points per game in wins and just 6.3 points per game in losses.

In other words, the Wildcats usually go as their bench goes.

“When our team is going to be at its best and when we have been at our best through the first 10 games of our season, we’ve gotten great contributions from a number of players who came off the bench,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Monday on his weekly radio show.

He then added: “Our worst moments are when we haven’t gotten the good play or contribution from a number of those guys who don’t start.”

The bench’s leading scorer is Ryan Luther (6.7 PPG), who started the first six games of the season before being replaced by Emmanuel Akot, a swap that has boosted the Wildcats’ second unit. It is averaging 25 PPG since adding Luther after it averaged 13.7 PPG in the six games he started.

That number is somewhat inflated because the bench scored 47 points against Georgia Southern, but Luther’s scoring average has risen since joining the unit and Akot’s has done the same since he joined the starting five. All things considered, flipping the two has been a worthwhile move.

But what else can Arizona, whose offense ranks 62nd in the country, do to bolster its bench?

The Wildcats can simply hope regulars like Luther, Ira Lee, and Dylan Smith pick up their play. Lee needs to cut down on turnovers and fouls, while Smith, who admittedly has been solid on the glass, needs to hit more jump shots, as his field goal percentages currently sit below his career average.

Miller could also give more minutes to some guys who haven’t had much of an opportunity this season like Alex Barcello or Devonaire Doutrive, who’ve both shown flashes of brilliance. Barcello scored a career high 16 points against Georgia Southern then played just four minutes against UConn, unable to build on what appeared to be a breakout game.

Doutrive seems like an obvious option because he is averaging 18.8 points per 40 minutes with tremendous efficiency (72.7 FG%). Then again, the freshman has not played against any quality teams yet, the sample size is small, and Miller says he still needs some polish on defense.

So what about playing the bench less and leaning on the starters more? That might be Arizona’s best bet.

Consider: Arizona does not have a single player averaging 30 or more minutes per game this season. The last UA team to do that? The 1990-91 squad.

“You could see that we are subbing often and when you do that, the guys who don’t start get their opportunity and we’re really counting on them to make positive plays,” Miller said.

The bench only scored six points in 49 minutes in the loss to Alabama, a game that was decided by a mere three points. Perhaps the Wildcats were relying too much on their second unit, and Miller seems to know it.

He mentioned Monday that Chase Jeter’s playing time will likely increase. The big man is only averaging 25.5 minutes per game, despite being one of Arizona’s most consistent sources of offense.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s two leading scorers — Brandon Williams and Brandon Randolph — are averaging 29 minutes per game, five minutes fewer than Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier averaged last season.