Arizona Wildcats junior center Kyryl Natyazhko hasn’t produced as a starter through six games, and his time might be running out.
“He’s either going to have to improve and get the job done in his third year with us, or we’re going to have to move in another direction,” coach Sean Miller said.
“We’re not looking for a double-digit scorer as much as ‘do your job, rebound the ball, play great post defense, bring energy, make a 15-footer.’
“He’s struggled out of the gate.”
Natyazhko is averaging 1.5 points and 2.8 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game as the Wildcats head into Tuesday night’s game at New Mexico State.
Miller talked about how the “puzzle” of this season’s team was less clear than it was a year ago at this time because so many players are new to their roles in the absence of Derrick Williams.
The center position is truly the center of that puzzle.
“I am certainly not giving up on Kyryl,” Miller said.
“One of the great stories of this team could be if he develops in a role that helped the team win and he was consistent, played with confidence and played with a lot of fire. That would be a great story.
“But that hasn’t happened. Sometimes the light goes on for big guys at different times in their career. Maybe that light will come on here in the future. But judging our team through six games — being 4-2 with a lot of hard-fought games — you would ask, ‘What is one of the things that is holding Arizona back?’”
Miller went on to answer his own question.
“I think a more consistent, more hard-playing, more valuable Kyryl,” he said. “We really relish that, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Natyazhko is the bulkiest of Arizona’s big men (6-11, 275), and the Cats need his size, in some games more than others. Miller’s options are limited, though.
In the absence of a Natyazhko turnaround, Miller can turn more to raw freshman Angelo Chol, athletic and springy at 6-9, 217, or continue to get 6-7 forward Jesse Perry up to speed at the center position and hope that Arizona’s small lineup overcomes its deficiencies with speed and hustle.
Alex Jacobson, a 7-footer, is fine for short stretches — when his back isn’t acting up. Freshman Sidiki Johnson, who had been counted on to help out, is suspended and doesn’t seem likely to be back with the team, according to Miller.
“It’s not just Kyryl, but it’s that position generally,” Miller said. “The better that position gets, the better it will be for our team.”
Miller will be looking for strong rebounding against the Aggies, who feature experienced 6-11 center Hamidu Rahman and 6-6 power forward Wendell McKines, a hard-working double-double machine.
Rahman is averaging 6.8 points and 6.8 rebounds. McKines is posting 17.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He did not play when NMSU lost 83-57 in McKale Center last season, when he redshirted because of a foot injury.
New Mexico State (5-1) has a rebounding margin of plus-8.3. Miller noted that NMSU rebounds about half of its missed shots.
“This is the best team we’ve played in terms of getting offensive rebounds,” Miller said. “As much as you are concerned with McKines as a player, you’re really concerned about him as an offensive rebounder.”