TUCSON, Ariz. – It is the reconstituted beauty of Arizona basketball that strikes you first. You watch the Wildcats flow and share and play so efficiently, KenPom’s analytics might as well be their machete, cutting out opponents’ hearts. But also, look closer. You’d also swear they’re almost smiling while doing it.
“It’s the style of play, the unselfishness,” first-year coach Tommy Lloyd said this week as the Cats prepare for the Pac-12 Tournament. “It’s not hard to get guys to play unselfish because it becomes fun. They see the fun and the sharing and the joy.”
Arizona basketball only seems like a tent revival these days. The basketball world sees the No. 2 Wildcats soaring to their first NCAA Tournament berth in four years, a probable No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years. The desert dynasty that Lute Olson birthed and Sean Miller sustained is back so quickly from the hangover of a still-ongoing NCAA investigation it can’t help but be noticed from all angles.
“What we’ve done so far has been done at Arizona,” Lloyd said sternly. “So let’s not act like we’re doing something here that’s never been done.”
But let’s act like we can talk about Arizona again without feeling like we need a shower. In these early days under Lloyd, the program has become a piece of Gonzaga excellence broken off at the root and replanted in that desert. But it’s more than that. Lloyd was Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s top assistant for two decades and made his bones recruiting internationally.
It was only a coincidence that Lloyd inherited a roster of players from seven countries. But there was definitely a reason Miller had peppered his team with imports.
“Arizona was in the crosshairs of this whole scandal,” Lloyd said. “That hurt recruiting a little bit. I don’t think it was easy to get some American kids. So they were smart and branched out.
International kids, Lloyd added, might not “have a full understanding of what could happen with NCAA stuff.”
That NCAA stuff included being a charter member in the FBI’s sting operation that now is 4 ½ years old. Former assistant coach Book Richardson spent three months in prison in 2019 after a plea agreement regarding bribery charges. Miller was fired last April. Lloyd was hired a week later.
“There’s a lot of scars, some PTSD,” Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said of the group that emerged to go 28-3 this season and set a Pac-12 record for conference wins with 18.
Arizona went 17-0 at home after starting the season unranked and being picked fourth in the conference. Six players have led it in scoring. Nineteen times the No. 2 Wildcats have posted at least 20 assists. That’s more than the rest of the Pac-12 combined. Those KenPom analytics show Arizona is the second-tallest team in the country.
The only player on the roster with NCAA Tournament experience is Gonzaga transfer Oumar Ballo. When Lloyd landed in Las Palmas, the island capital of the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa to recruit Ballo a few years ago, the 15-year old greeted him by saying, “Can I tell you my story?”
Lloyd paused, listened and came away with an unpolished gem. With a body that sometimes outstripped the kid’s ability to control it, the 7-foot Ballo eventually got himself to the United States, but stagnated at Gonzaga. On Saturday, he came off the bench to lead the Wildcats with 16 points and making all seven of his shots.
Four of Arizona’s five starters are international players. Throw in their unselfish Euro-play and it all looks very Gonzagish.
“We watched their games,” guard Dalen Terry said of the Zags. “We text each other, ‘That was this play That was that play.”http://www.cbssports.com/”
“At the end of the day we are different,” Ballo countered. “I feel like we have our own stuff.”
That points up the diversity of Arizona’s attack. It’s feisty guard from Estonia – Kerr Kriisa – is named after Arizona legend Steve Kerr. Until his triple double this season, the last Wildcat to accomplish that feat was Andre Iguodala 18 years ago. Leading scorer Bennedict Mathurin is from Montreal. Christian Koloko, a 7-foot-1 junior, shoots 61% from the post and leads the Pac-12 in blocked shots.
Reserve guard Justin Kier is the outlier in that discussion being from Virginia. He is also in his sixth season, on his third school and had senior day all to himself Saturday. Kier is such a Steph Curry fan it borders on the obsessive. He chose George Mason initially because it was in the same conference as Curry’s school, Davidson of the Atlantic 10. Kier says Steph Curry’s grandmother lived down the street and that he had the honor of meeting his father Del Curry’s sister who worked at a local Kohl’s.
“We literally just swapped places,” said Kier, who had played just one season with the Bulldogs.
After leading George Mason in scoring one season to earn second-team Atlantic 10 honors and then facing the rigors of the SEC, Kier didn’t care much about starting by the time he got to Arizona.
“I want to win,” he told Lloyd and his staff when they Zoomed him to gauge his interest. “I’ve had my scoring year [at George Mason, 2018-19]. “That individual, I guess you would say, was selfish. I’ve had that year where I played at the highest level. What is something that I haven’t done that I want to do? I haven’t won.”
In the final month of his long career Kier will gather with the rest of them to watch Arizona’s name go back up the board on Selection Sunday. Only now have the six years been worth the wait.
“I’ve been ready to be done with college for a while now,” Kier said. “I don’t know how lawyers and doctors go for so long. Now I’m doing it.”
Lloyd’s righteous late-season run has been a bit overshadowed out on the Left Coast. He’s 47, looks 37 and is threatening to become only the third winner of the Naismith Coach of the Year Award in his first season as a head coach.
That award usually goes to the coach of a team with low expectations. Lloyd gets that. His is a career that has 20 years to run, at least. But it should be known for beginning with a heart-to-heart with Miller during the transition. Sort of a gentlemanly changing of the guard.
“He told me some things I should focus on in the job,” Lloyd said. “He didn’t have to do that.”
That’s further evidence that Arizona is also here because it knows how to navigate a scandal. Well, at least better than its in-state rival. The Arizona administration finally saw fit to get rid of Miller last April as the impropriety deepened. Up the road, Arizona State has no clear plan on how to mitigate damning (alleged) recruiting violations in its football prgram beyond ejecting five assistants.
Arizona eventually reached the “right” decision on Miller, maybe because of one big difference fom its in-state rival. It has a championship history. No matter what happens – there was a self-imposed postseason ban last season – Arizona basketball had to meet a standard. It chased titles. It is a national program.
Olson and Miller had combined for 17 Pac-10/12 titles, 32 NCAA Tournament appearances, four Final Fours and one national championship since 1986. That history is why it returned so quickly.
“I didn’t even watch college basketball last year,” Terry said. “I was so not even locked in. … Now we know we’re the best in the Pac-12. We watch every game. We’re watching the No. 1 seed on the East Coast to see if they lose.”
Lloyd used that history as both a signpost and a challenge. There was a mid-season meeting with Kerr and Golden State Warriors’ assistant Bruce Fraser, both former Wildcats. Kerr had recalled getting pissed at one of his early Golden State teams because he thought they were good enough to win it all. The players weren’t altogether acting like it.
“I saw the parallels there,” Lloyd said.
In Lloyd’s mind, Arizona went in stages from a being a tournament team to being able to win the Pac-12 to, well, beyond.
“Then I started thinking, ‘Don’t be scared of this. Don’t talk yourself out of being really good. Let’s just roll with it. Act like you’ve been there. Coach with the mindset you coached a lot of those Gonzaga teams,’ Lloyd said.
“Steve’s message was, ‘You got to let them know the reasons you are getting mad. So raise the standards.”http://www.cbssports.com/”
The Wildcats have lost twice since Dec. 22. They’ve won 13 of their last 14. Lloyd is aware, if form holds, Arizona and Gonzaga should both end up on the top seed line. That would project a Final Four meeting in New Orleans. He is also aware of the vagaries of March can ruin a season,
“You get in the tournament, play a bad game, the narrative changes pretty quick,” Lloyd said.
For now, Lloyd’s Arizona is a little bit of Lute and a whole lot of Miller’s former players. It’s also a little bit of a relief. First, because Arizona’s reputation had been so sullied. But also because it’s fun to see a blueblood back with postseason plasma coursing through its veins.
“Hey, how about this group of misfits right here?” a smiling Lloyd told the crowd at the net-cutting ceremony following Saturday’s regular-season finale against Cal. “What they gave me this year inspired me to coach forever.”
The McKale Center lost it. In that moment, the Wildcats might have cleared the final hurdle to becoming its old self — going from disreputable to joyful to beautiful to – at least here in Tucson – even huggable.