SAN DIEGO – Arizona is a perfect storm. It just is and forever in my mind the 2021-22 will be remembered as such.
How could it not be? At this time last year, Arizona wasn’t even in the NCAA tournament given its self-sanction because of the looming NCAA issues. And then there was the speculation of the possibility Sean Miller could be let go at some point.
He eventually was let go in early April … and that’s when the circumstances of events started.
Arizona then hired Tommy Lloyd, then the top assistant at Gonzaga.
“What struck me most was, what a good person this guy is,” said Dave Heeke, who along with Arizona president Bobby Robbins hired Lloyd. “I mean genuine, real, grounded, positive. Someone you want to be around. When you combine this with his basketball knowledge, program vision and passion for recruiting it was clear he was the right guy for the job. He’s special.”
How Arizona became the No. 1 seed in the South and the No. 2 overall seed is a tale of perfect timing and mixed pieces that have worked to near perfection. Isn’t 31-3 near perfection? Specifically, because Arizona was on no one’s radar and no where near the top 25. And now they face Wright State in its first NCAA game since 2018.
Pete Williams, former Arizona great and a basketball aficionado, said he saw some really good things from this team in late August when he and a group of others were invited to see practice.
“What stood out to me first was the size of those guys,” he said on Thursday. “It was size, speed and athleticism. We were courtside and could literally touch them and I was thinking if I’m just blown away by the size of them, what must the others be thinking.
“Then the pace that played with the whole time we were there (was amazing),” he said. “They’d run a set with the emphasis on transition and quick transition. The speed was incredible. They kept it up the whole time we were there. That was impressive. When you look at how things have played out during the regular season as far as pace, we saw this way back then. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it would play out like it has. It’s been impressive.”
Circumstances of events and the Wildcats Whisperer (Tommy Lloyd) have made it happen. The Wildcats bought in, but more on that later.
Arizona got to this point – a nice and willing roster – because others created space.
James Akinjo said he was leaving to either head to the NBA or transfer. He wasn’t going to return. He ended up at Baylor.
It was for the best given he was a ball-dominant guard and likely wouldn’t have fit well into Tommy Lloyd’s system. But who knew at the time, given Tommy Lloyd hadn’t been hired yet?
Besides, the chemistry of this team would have been different.
Terrell Brown decided to take his talents to Washington, where he shined like few other transfers have in the last three two decades. He led the Pac-12 in scoring for the Huskies. He would have fit but his role would have been totally different this year. He made the right decision.
Center Jordan Brown, after discussions with Lloyd early on, decided to leave (even though it was thought he’d stay) to play at Louisiana. Given his ability he would have fit in nicely … until the emergence of Oumar Ballo, who has come on strong in the last few months. His minutes would have diminished. Brown made the right decision.
Tibet Gorener left for San Jose State, and it was for the best.
Jemarl Baker left for Fresno State and like Tibet it was for the best.
And Daniel Batcho left as well and now finds himself in the same NCAA tournament site as his former teammates, but this time in Texas Tech red. Good for him.
Arizona’s gang of “Misfits” – as Lloyd calls them – were complete, with the transfer of Ballo, Justin Kier and Pelle Larsson. The latter two veterans who know how to play specific and important roles. Arizona didn’t miss a beat either with the mysterious departure of transfer Kim Aiken. No one blinked and its depth didn’t get hurt.
The chemistry was right … from the start. The style of play was perfect, a free-flowing, find-the-open-man-type offense where – how novel – sharing the ball was and is important. As Dalen Terry said, “everybody touches the ball, everybody gets off and everybody eats.
“On defense, we all have our accountabilities. And we all do what we have to bring to the table so we can play as fast as we do and make it fun to watch… and it’s real fun to play.”
Who wouldn’t want to play in this style? Lute Olson 2.0 (or whatever point we are at now).
“He trusts us so much,” said Larsson. “I don’t think that’s very common in college. He trusts his players and coaches his players to make decisions to make plays with fundamentals. I enjoy it a lot (how he coaches). It’s similar to European basketball. I think it’s the closest thing to European coach you can get in college basketball. It fits our team very well.”
Of course, you need a straw to stir the drink and Arizona has him in Bennedict Mathurin, who is in his second year became the Pac-12’s player of the year.
After that, everything else fell into place. Christian Koloko emerged as the best big man in the conference (who knew that was possible?). Ballo became his capable sidekick who could provide a one-two punch not just defensively but offensively, as well.
Azoulas Tubelis emerged as the quasi-consistent forward who fits in perfectly with his 12-foot jumper and stoic demeaner.
And then there’s the polarizing guard Arizona fans love (some don’t) but the opponents don’t. The Antagonizer, Kerr Kriisa.
And then there was Lloyd who was hired April 14, 2021, to get the “Misfits” right and get them in their right place. The perfect coach for the perfect time in Arizona basketball history given it needed a refresh given the looming NCAA decision and the last four years of uncertainty.
They bought in – early. Lloyd said the buy-in wasn’t difficult.
“Obviously, you have to build personal relationships too and that’s part of it,” Lloyd said. “I think the buy-in happens when guys feel themselves start to improve. And none of these guys had much of an opportunity to play make last year.”
Now, they lead the nation in assists per game. Sharing is caring.
“I’m so proud of how far they have come,” he said. “They’ve been a great group to work with.”
Lloyd’s aw-shucks personality and his run-and-stun style to the game has brought Arizona back to being a national contender, much to the delight of Arizona fans. It’s been a while. Probably too long for those who have waited – and waited – for it all to come back.
In December, Lloyd said he was “going to squeeze everything I can out of this team.” And, he has.
“We’re trying to build something that is sustainable,” he said then. “I gotta do a great job with the guys we have now. They deserve it. And they’ve done a great job.”
Perfect storm, indeed.