For a senior, being removed from the starting lineup could be a crushing blow.
But for University of Tulsa forward Martins Igbanu, it was a game-changer, as it helped him become a consistent weapon again and boosted his team into first place in the American Athletic Conference.
“The way I was raised, nobody is entitled to anything,” Igbanu said. “Coming off the bench, I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything.
“If anything, I feel like it’s given me an advantage. The team has been playing really well since I’ve been coming off the bench and I’ve been playing really well, too.”
Igbanu is averaging 13.1 points and 5.9 rebounds since being taken out of the starting lineup, and he is shooting 58.6% from the field. The move by coach Frank Haith came last month after Igbanu struggled to gain traction in nonconference play.
“I think it was a great call by Coach,” Igbanu said. “He made a very good decision and I think that shows a lot of his experience. … I trust coach Haith to be able to make the best decisions for the team.”
While center Emmanuel Ugboh plays the first few minutes, Igbanu watches and gets a feel for the action. He typically checks in before the first media timeout and often is with the starters to open the second half.
“I’m able to come in the game and not have to get that second wind,” Igbanu said. “I already have it. It’s been working pretty well for me and I think I prefer it, really.”
Haith points to Igbanu’s increased production as one of the key reasons the Hurricane has won six games in a row and unexpectedly emerged as a conference contender.
“He’s embraced (coming off the bench) and that’s why he has given himself a chance to play well,” Haith said. “He’s going to play his 30 minutes a game.
“It doesn’t matter if you get your name called out and picture on the big (video) screen. You’re going to play your minutes. I think when you know that and you’re comfortable with who you are, it doesn’t matter. That shows a lot maturity in Martins.”
In an overtime win at UConn on Jan. 26, Igbanu delivered a career-high 28 points along with 10 rebounds. TU (15-6, 7-1) hosts the Huskies at 6 p.m. Thursday for the last conference meeting between the programs before UConn (11-10, 2-6) returns to the Big East.
“Our guys know how tough a win that was at UConn, so I think we’ll have great respect for UConn coming in here,” Haith said. “We’ll get their very best effort.”
Despite defeating the Huskies in all five meetings at the Reynolds Center, the games in Tulsa have not been without drama.
Last season, both coaches were ejected. TU prevailed in double overtime two years ago and overtime three years ago.
Fans are encouraged to wear black to Thursday night’s game to say farewell to a memorable rivalry that has produced five consecutive wins for the Hurricane.
“They (UConn) were important to the American when this league was formed,” Haith said. “My first year, they were coming off a national championship. UConn is UConn and we’re going to miss that brand. But it’s been fun.”