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Strength of bench negating need for Arizona men’s basketball to consider change to starting lineup

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-bench-scoring-starters-tommy-lloyd-kj-lewis-jaden-bradley-2024 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tommy Lloyd’s goal to improve his team’s depth hasn’t played out like many would have thought, as Arizona has used an 8-man rotation most of the season with the occasional ninth guy getting some first-half run. But it’s the quality of that depth that has trumped its quantity, and as a result may have prevented any need to tweak the starting lineup.

Arizona’s bench contributed 23 points in Sunday’s 82-71 win over Stanford, including 16 in the second half when the Wildcats outscored the Cardinal 48-26. For the season the non-starters are providing 23.8 points per game, or about 26.7 percent of the overall scoring.

“Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in what they can bring to the table,” Lloyd said of his bench after it scored 32 against Cal last Thursday. “Ultimately, we want to put people in the position that they’re playing to their strengths.”

The trio of guards Jaden Bradley and KJ Lewis and center Motiejus Krivas are combining for 18.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.7 steals per game. In Pac-12 play those numbers are almost the same: 18.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.2 steals.

That’s despite none of them averaging more than 20 minutes per game, though Bradley and Lewis have both played as many as 26 minutes. Lewis did that against Stanford, scoring 12 points and adding three rebounds, three assists and two steals.

That duo was plus-17 and plus-19, respectively, against the Cardinal. For the season they rank third (+241) and fourth (+238) on the team in plus/minus, trailing only Pelle Larsson (+289) and Caleb Love (+274).

Lloyd said Lewis, who has scored in double figures three of the last five games, and Bradley are both capable of being starters for Arizona. But there are no plans to change the lineup, he confirmed Tuesday.

“Are there instances or circumstances where they’re good enough to start? For sure,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. Sometimes you have to make a decision, and they’re not always easy decisions, and you have to trust that decision, and I feel good about the decisions we’ve made. I feel like I’m comfortable where I’m at. If I’m comfortable where I’m at that’s usually a pretty good thing.”

It’s a far cry from last season when, after 18 games, Lloyd decided to move Larsson to the bench and insert Cedric Henderson into the starting lineup. That was mostly because the bench was sorely lacking in scoring punch, which isn’t the case this season.

There’s also the fact that, while Bradley and Lewis haven’t started, they’ve been in some of Arizona’s most frequently used lineups of late.

According to KenPom.com, the starting five of Larsson, Love, Kylan Boswell, Keshad Johnson and Oumar Ballo have been on the court together for 27.1 percent of the last five games. The next most-used quintet, at 8.3 percent, has Lewis at the 3 with Larsson sliding over to the 4, followed by lineups that have both Bradley and Lewis in there and also Motiejus Krivas.

Lewis has logged 49 percent of the minutes at the 3 spot over the last five games while Bradley has played 43 percent of the minutes at the 1 and 2.

After the Stanford win, both Bradley and Lewis noted the team’s culture puts more emphasis on the overall result than the individual numbers. That includes minutes.

“Tommy does a great job of putting us in situations where we can be successful,” Bradley said. “So that’s all we ask for.”

Added Lewis: “It started from day one when everybody got here, Coach Lloyd said celebrate each other’s wins and pick each other up after losses.”