Rawle Alkins missed over 10 weeks with a broken foot, which meant 10 weeks of anticipation and 10 weeks of hope for everyone else around the Arizona Wildcats, especially after that trip to the Bahamas went sideways.
So when UA coach Sean Miller announced Thursday that the sophomore forward would make his season debut Saturday against Alabama, pending a setback in practices before then, Miller put on the brakes a little bit.
“You can’t expect him to all of a sudden just walk out there for the jump ball and be the best version of Rawle Alkins that he can be,” Miller said. “He’s gonna take a little time. He knows that.”
Miller wanted to make sure not only fans knew that, but Alkins, too.
Alkins won’t start Saturday, Miller said, and could take a while to fit fully back in.
“That’s always a challenge and it’s a challenge for Rawle because he has high expectations,” Miller said. “I’ve talked to him this week a lot, to make sure he understands he has to expect it. It’s not going to feel completely normal.”
But there are a couple of things that Miller can’t deny here. One is that Alkins is the Wildcats’ second-leading returning scorer from last season, a guy who opted to return to school even after playing well in the NBA combine and somebody who can immediately help in rebounding, defense, physicality and, in perhaps his most obvious quality, energy.
The Wildcats can use a little of all of those things after losing three games in the Bahamas and rebounding somewhat with wins over Long Beach State, UNLV and Texas A&M.
“We are gonna be a better team with Rawle,” said center Dusan Ristic, the player UA selected to be interviewed Thursday. “He brings toughness to our team, whether in rebounding, playing defense or just overall I would say he’s an overall player. You can’t say he’s just good at one thing. He’s really good at doing multiple things on the court.”
Miller said it’s not just Alkins’ physical skills in rebounding, defense and offense, but also his mental game that helps.
Alkins is “somebody who really has a great understanding of how to pass the ball and make the simple play,” Miller said. “One of the things, because of how he’s built, that you take for granted is he’s got a high basketball IQ. He knows how to make the right play, when to make the right play. He’s very unselfish with how he goes about playing the game and those are all things that any team would love to have.”
Another truth: That Alkins’ position is wide open and aching for him to return. The small forward spot has been inconsistent for the Wildcats so far, although UA has begun to get more from freshman Brandon Randolph there after he suffered a concussion on Nov. 4, and received the kind of game on Tuesday they might have expected from UNC Asheville transfer Dylan Smith, who had 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting in UA’s 67-64 win over Texas A&M.
“Those guys have all improved and progressed,” Miller said. “We would not have beaten Texas A&M if they both didn’t do what they did. Brandon especially has proved to us he can score and he can make shots. For freshmen it’s as much what they do every day as much as it is in the games.”
But defensively, the Wildcats have struggled. Playing a schedule that Kenpom rates No. 71 so far, Arizona is allowing opponents to shoot 44.0 percent – with only the 44th most efficient defense in college basketball – and small forward has been part of that issue.
Miller said in the preseason that freshman small forward Emmanuel Akot was a potential stopper but Akot has struggled, in part because of knee tendinitis.
“He’s making progress,” Miller said. “He doesn’t have an injury. He just has tendinitis, and he has to get both of his legs stronger. … That’s certainly affected him , but he’s a young player with a bright future.”
Having Alkins back, however, means the Wildcats won’t have to rely as heavily on freshmen if they struggle or get hurt. Miller now has a full bench to choose from, meaning Randolph will likely slip into a sixth-man role and Smith and Akot could slide further down the rotation.
But all that isn’t happening yet. The Wildcats are likely to start Randolph or Smith at small forward Saturday, and play Alkins 10-20 minutes off the bench to see how it goes.
Then again, Miller said Alkins has actually lost body fat and weight while sitting out – something Miller said isn’t easy for somebody who went non-weight-bearing on the foot for over a month – so maybe it won’t take long.
“The opportunity for us here is when we get after Christmas and he’s both playing games and practicing regularly, he’ll be able to hit his stride early in conference play as opposed to two or three weeks into conference play,” Miller said. “He’s ready physically. It’s just a matter of seeing that he doesn’t have any setbacks. We’ve given it a lot of time and he’s worked very, very hard.”