Sometime early this coming week Arizona should be the No. 2 team in the country, trailing only Gonzaga in the polls.
Tommy Lloyd is lurking his old team like a playful – hungry? – shark. Well, maybe.
But isn’t it funny? Weird? Cool?
“Probably all those things,” Lloyd said when I asked of the possible but very likely scenario. “You answered your own question. Weird, cool, awesome … I’m proud of those guys (at Gonzaga). They got a great team. And like I said, they’re family and I think they’re happy for us. So yeah, we just got to, you know, take care of business as they got to take care of business and we’ll see how long it plays out.”
The possible chance of it happening almost didn’t happen, given Arizona lived on the edge against a tough and determined Oregon team on Saturday night in McKale Center.
The Ducks faced Arizona’s best and most vocal crowd of the season and what will soon be the second ranked Wildcats. it took every punch Arizona had … until the last one, when Will Richardson was denied a 3-point attempt and couldn’t get off a decent two-pointer as time expired deep into the night.
Christian Koloko stepped up – literally, making it a tall order for Richardson to get a shot off.
The result was an 84-81 win for Arizona, its 24th win against two losses. Arizona snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Ducks. No UA player on the current roster had ever beaten the Ducks.
“Feels good, feels amazing for the first time,” said Koloko, referring to winning against Oregon. “And the first time beating UCLA. But they’re a good team. We’re probably going to play them again in the Pac-12 tournament so we just gotta learn from this game and be ready for our next game.’
There’s a lot to learn from Saturday night. What we do know is Arizona has what it takes in close games and although the sample size isn’t that large Arizona has continued to win close ones more than lose them. Saturday night, Arizona could have very easily lost it.
But the Wildcats found a way, whether it was through Lloyd barking out “get tougher” on the sidelines – or in the locker room – to his players or Arizona regrouping from another strange-but-better first half.
It also survived another game where the free throw percentages weren’t solid, but just good enough to win late. Arizona shot 11 for 19 from the line.
And, well, of course the question comes up every time Arizona doesn’t shoot well from the line.
“You guys (the media) drill this down (but) it’s way too simple for me,” Lloyd said. “Listen, there’s a lot of concerns. I wouldn’t say free throws. I trust the guys making free throws and we just got to step up and make them. Our percentage overall is pretty good all year.”
Also remember Lloyd talks about everything is a law of averages. So far, the average has been on the good side for Arizona. Just as most of the second halves have been for the Wildcats after rocky starts.
Saturday it wasn’t so much as rocky as it was Oregon turned into the team everyone expected the Ducks to be – tough. It clearly wasn’t the team that lost to Arizona State on Thursday. But Lloyd expected a tough one, no matter Thursday’s outcome. Throw in Oregon has had Arizona’s number so who knew what would happen?
Then came Saturday night in front of a national ESPN audience when Arizona behind Kerr Kriisa, Koloko, Azuolas Tubelis, Bennedict Mathurin and others found just enough to get the win.
It was Mathurin who, once again, helped by coming to the rescue with his fourth consecutive 20-point game. He finished with 24, just outdueling Oregon’s Richardson for high-scoring honors. Richardson finished with 22 points.
Did he feel he had to take over the game?
“I felt like the defense started playing me a little bit differently,” Mathurin said. “So, I knew what to do. I spoke with the coaches and then they told me some things that I could do in order for me to score the ball. Basically, I went with the flow.”
The direction may have been helped by something as simple as Lloyd telling Mathurin to “smile” right after the national anthem was performed.
“Smile today and have fun, enjoy this moment,” Lloyd said of what he told Bennedict. “There’s no pressure on you. There’s nothing … I just think he just found the joy in the game. Nothing great in life can be accomplished without enthusiasm and joy. And so that’s been my message to him.”
Along with the “smile” he told Mathurin to “play within the framework of the team.
“He played a really good game,” Lloyd said. “There’s also some great clips (that will) help him learn on some of those penetration things where he’s getting a little bit deep and kind of getting pushed off the angle (to the basket). Ben’s a really good player and when he’s locked in like he has been the last (few games) he’s special and it’s a joy to coach him. I’m happy to. I’m happy that he’s having the success that he is.”
It worked Mathurin called it “a fun” and “good experience.”
It helped that Arizona was able to pull off the win and move to 14-1 in the Pac-12.
Be sure to listen to Steve and Jay Gonzales weekdays from 3-5 pm on Fox Sports 1450’s Eye on the Ball!