For a guy who doesn’t like celebrations, Tommy Lloyd orchestrated a doozy in McKale on Saturday afternoon.
Heck, the game – an 89-61 victory – was all but an afterthought on Saturday.
Hell, how many coaches would tell the home crowd to “BTFD” the rest of the way as Arizona prepares for Vegas and beyond?
Lloyd did that and so much more on Saturday and this season. He was the team’s and crowd’s No. 1 cheerleader.
“I felt obligated … I couldn’t probably duck behind the scenes because it might have been a little awkward,” he said in his self-effacing way. “We celebrate wins behind the scene, trust me. We love winning because we know it’s not easy. You can’t get to a point in coaching where winning doesn’t feel good because if you do it becomes about avoiding losses and it becomes a hard life … I’m proud of the guys.”
And so here Arizona is – a group of “misfits” as Lloyd called them – 28-3 overall and 18-2 in the Pac-12. The 18 wins are the most wins for any conference team in a regular season in, well, forever. The 20-game scheduled helped with that, but you still have to win them, right?
It turned into a season to remember and a season that brought back the fun at McKale and with Arizona. A group of misfits put the fun into the Fun Bunch behind its leader.
The fun was needed, Lloyd knew it. Hell, everyone knew it. It had been a couple of tough years.
“I’m a biology major so I can I say the joke ‘I’m a fun guy.’ I like having fun,” he said. “I think having fun and having a culture with love in the middle of it is the best way to have fun and sustain it. I think it’s powerful.
“Listen, I’m hard on the guys, you guys (media) see me a little bit but don’t see me as much behind the scenes. I push them but I feel like when I have relationships with them and love them, I can push them more. I’m just doing things that I feel comfortable with and are natural for me. I’m not doing it because somebody else did it a different way. I’m just doing it the way I’m most comfortable with and trying to be myself.”
It’s led Arizona to being the No. 1 seed in next week’s Pac-12 tournament and a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in less than two weeks.
Who would have thought that five months ago? Not the voters who picked Arizona to finish fourth in the Pac-12 race. Few, if any, in fact.
But there they were celebrating an unfathomable championship.
“From where we started to where we are now, I didn’t expect that,” Lloyd said. “It’s pretty awesome. I’m happy for the guys, happy for the staff. This is what I came down here to try to do so, you know, I didn’t have a timeline on it, but I guess why not now?”
The pieces have all fit – they felt good early and feel even better now. The mix of international players and American players has been Arizona’s perfect recipe with the perfect chef.
“It’s been amazing,” said Justin Kier when asked about the fun to this point. “I’m just grateful … these guys, this family, you know, we do a lot of stuff off the court that that makes this team special.”
Dinners, everything. Shows in the passing. The sharing. The everything.
“We’re always together and I think that’s why this group is so special,” Kier said. “That’s why we don’t want to stop playing right now. We’re just close, all of us. And it’s pretty special.”
Saturday it was all on display, and it typified the season. Arizona came out and looked good from the start – lulled a little – then poured it on to get the decisive win.
Arizona reserve Oumar Ballo was the star, getting a team-high 16 points and five rebounds. He went 7 for 7 from the floor, most on dunks and domination.
“It’s unbelievable,” Lloyd said when I asked about Ballo’s improvement since the beginning of the year. “It’s crazy. I mean, just the force he played with in that game today and, and you know, what’s really the coolest thing about it is the relationship between he and C-Lo (Christian Koloko). They’re best friends and they beat on each other at practice.”
It’s why both have made the remarkable improvement jump. And another reason why Arizona is where it is.
Then, of course, there’s the play of Bennedict Mathurin, who had 13 points, Kier who had 13 and Pelle Larsson who had 13 points.
“We just kind of slowly grew that lead over 20 minutes in the second half and you know, it didn’t feel like the margin was what it was,” Lloyd said, “but, I mean, I’ll give credit to our guys for being mature.”
So, now they’ll set their sights on winning the Pac-12 post-season tournament, something it hasn’t done since 2018.
If that happens, Lloyd will likely wear a different championship hat than the one he did on Saturday.
That one, however, looked pretty good.
“It’s good to win a regular season championship,” he said. “That’s one of your first goals when you start out a season. Can you win a regular season conference championship? It’s a marathon and for these guys to do it so quick was awesome. They are awesome and a really good team. When we go to play in Vegas or forward, you don’t get extra points. … elimination basketball is fun. It’s not easy and I look forward taking this team down that journey.”