The Arizona Wildcats debuted a new starting lineup last week, etching Emmanuel Akot at the 4 instead of Ryan Luther, and it appears a role reversal is exactly what the forwards needed to get on track.
Luther, who went scoreless in two straight games before moving to the bench, is averaging 9 points per game since becoming a reserve. Akot, who’s had a quiet season, posted six points and five rebounds in the win over UConn, his best performance to date.
While they play the same position, their skill-sets are dissimilar, which may explain why the swap has seemed to work for the Wildcats, who have won both games since the change (though the sample size is still too small to be sure).
“Well, the one difference between Emmanuel and Ryan is Ryan is one of our team’s best overall shooters,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “And so when he doesn’t start and comes into the game, he gives us a different look. And really ditto for Emmanuel. Him starting the game, it gives us a different look. We have another ball handler on the court. We have almost another wing player to defend. So we’re a little bit quicker, a little bit more fluid in terms of multiple ball handlers. And we don’t have maybe the shooting that we have with Ryan, but Ryan comes into a game and he gives us more of that shooting, scoring punch.”
A scoring punch that Arizona’s bench desperately needed. The unit has scored 71 points the last two games after it scored 19 in the previous three. Luther alone has scored 18 points during UA’s two-game win streak.
Miller thinks the senior’s confidence has returned after it dissipated in Maui where he injured his non-shooting hand and was noticeably hindered by it thereafter.
Luther hit a trio of timely free throws down the stretch to help the Wildcats seal a crucial road win over UConn.
“I think Ryan took a real step forward in the (UConn) game and made some big plays and just seemed to be more sure of himself,” Miller said. “Again, I don’t think that the injury that he sustained would have been as big of a deal except that it happened in our Iowa State game and then he had to follow that game up with back-to-back games in consecutive days. So that really stands out, plus the toll it takes and you just don’t get over something like that in a week. But we’re beyond two weeks now and he’s not missed a practice other than when we got back from Maui and I think he’s moving forward in a good way.”
Akot has seemingly built some confidence, too, which may stem from him being on the court at tip-off instead of the bench.
“It certainly kind of forces him to just engage in the game right away, not think about it,” Miller said. “And different players, they react to different things. ... I thought Emmanuel did a really good job against UConn. He helped us win, he was confident at the beginning of both halves and really did a good job competing.”
Now the question is whether Arizona will keep its new starting lineup or reinsert Luther. Initially, Miller said shifting Akot into the starting five was for confidence and matchup purposes, hinting that it was only a temporary move.
And when asked if Akot will start Thursday against Utah Valley — a small, athletic team that seems like an ideal matchup for Akot — Miller said it is “up in the air.”
It would make sense to stick with what’s been working, but Miller doesn’t believe there is much of a dilemma either way, since both players will get their fair share of minutes and have embraced what he calls a “team-centered attitude.”
“We’ve asked Emman to do different things, he’s done it. We’ve asked Ryan to do some different things and he’s done it. I don’t think (starting) really matters to those guys as much as it does to some players,” Miller said.
“We want to start the five best players, the five players that give ourselves the best chance to get off to a good start, especially in both halves. It does mean something who starts the game, but Ryan’s playing 23 minutes per game and Emmanuel is playing right under 20. So it’s not like we’ve made a wholesale change. It’s just they’ve kind of flipped flopped in terms when they’re in the game.”
UA point guard Justin Coleman, who has started alongside both players, has a similar view, even going a step further by saying Arizona’s game plan remains the same no matter who starts at the 4.
“We do the same thing everyday,” he said. “We have four, five teams in practice, so with Emmanuel starting at the 4, he does the same thing as Ryan Luther. He can shoot the ball, he can put the ball on the floor, he can pass.
“Those two guys are some really good players. Ryan Luther came from Pittsburgh, so he has a lot of experience. In the UConn game, Ryan stepped up and made some big free throws, some big plays for us, and Emmanuel Akot, he’s a young guy that can be an NBA player. He brings to the team a lot of versatility at the 4, he can guard quicker guards, so those two guys are really good for our program.”