SACRAMENTO – Arizona came into the season losing three players to the NBA and looked like a team that might not be as good or successful as it was in Tommy Lloyd’s first season.
Oh, those with little faith.
Tommy & Co., are back … and maybe not as a No. 1 seed but a No. 2 seed.
It wasn’t about re-finding the formula but re-establishing it behind a group of players who believe in their coach, their teammates and the style they play.
“I felt confident (coming back this year),” said UA guard Kerr Kriisa. “The longer we’re in the system the better we get, so I wasn’t really worried about (losing all those players) plus our coaching staff did a great job in the portal. We got the guys we wanted and were a perfect fit for us. I wasn’t too stressed about it.”
And, so Arizona is here – again – in the first round of the NCAA tournament ready to face Ivy League Tournament champion Princeton. The game starts at 1:10 pm on TNT.
Lloyd said he never doubted his team’s possible success coming in, despite Benn Mathurin, Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko gone.
In came Cedric Henderson, Jr., Courtney Ramey, Kylan Boswell and the rest. And, well, there was no rest.
The style of run-and-stun never stopped. The love for one another grew. The demand of success continued.
“I have high expectations from this group,” Lloyd said. “… From the outside I think people expected us to take a step back but I didn’t think we would. We had the pieces in place to play consistently at a high level. I felt we had a group built to win basketball games.”
And they did, yet had some puzzling losses to some of the lower programs. Still, they were good enough to go 28-6 overall and win the Pac-12 Conference tournament title.
“If you were like the experts and tried to prognosticate it out, maybe it was hard to see the forest through the trees,” Lloyd said, “but I thought if you drilled it down and took it day by day I thought we had a good group. I thought we jelled real early.”
Now, he said, “it’s time to put the icing on the cake.”
It’ll be against a team that is, of course, smart, cunning, cutting, and determined to run its offense. Then again it’s not the same offense from the mid-1990s with its back cuts and smart moves. Of course, those are still there … just different. It’s been “modernized.”
As Lloyd tried to joke, their offense is the Princeton offense because, well, they are Princeton.
“I’m sure they have layers of it in what they do, but it’s not what they are doing,” Lloyd said, comparing eras. “They’re running an offense that everybody is running today – five out, two man, three-man actions. … All systems evolve. Their system has evolved. The one thing is it’s rooted in fundamentals, unselfishness and being able to pass.”
The key word may be unselfishness. In speaking about his team, Princeton coach Mitch Henderson waxed poetic on his team’s ability to play together. It’s the root of his team’s success. And a key reason why his team is here.
It’s a physical team, he said. It doesn’t rely on two-foot shots because it can hit 30-footers.
“We have a great group,” he said.
Still, Arizona has size, speed and perceived better athletes. Again, perceived.
“At the end of the day, they still have to guard us and play us,” Henderson said. “In these games, in these moments, you have to remember what you have here. We’re very respectful of our opponents. This is amazing to be here and be together, but you have to be yourself.”
Princeton’s Tosan Evbuomwan said it’s about “playing off one another” and playing a style of basketball that’s “selfless.”
Arizona, too, plays the same way. It has since Lloyd arrived. Arizona averages 19.2 assists per game, good enough for second in the NCAA standings. Going into Thursday’s game Arizona has 652 assists, good for fourth all-time in school history for a season. Just 10 shy of the 1987-88 Final Four team, 25 shy of the 1997-98 team and 74 shy of last year’s team.
“Obviously, we were very unselfish team,” said Kerr, who averages 5.2 points per game. “We love our teammates. We like sharing the ball. And outside of the court we are like brothers. We goof around and that’s how team’s should be. It’s very hard to be a good team when you have guys who aren’t thinking about themselves.”
To Lloyd, he called it “simple” and basketball is best played “when it’s a shared experience.”
“It’s best when teammates are enjoying each other’s successes,” he said. “And, they’re not fighting each other for individual success. That’ something that organically happens in our culture.
“Our guys love playing for each other. They love playing for big moments as a group. It’s fun. It’s what makes my job enjoyable.”
In fact, he’s made Arizona basketball pleasurable … making the transition from Sean Miller to him very enjoyable and successful. Arizona is 14-1 on neutral courts since he arrived. And he’s 61-10, the most wins by a second-year coach.
“I think if Tommy would have gone anywhere it would have been a perfect (for him),” Kerr said. “We just got lucky enough to get him.”
In part because he’s a “player’s coach,” Kerr said.
“In the games and the practices he asks how we feel and that’s something we don’t take for granted because we don’t want to break that trust between the players and coaches. That trust we have is very strong.”
It’s part of what’s made the last two seasons very good. Lloyd said the success is the “by-product” of the good players he has.
He said all he’s doing is what he’s long said, it’s a “day-to-day approach” but this time around the NCAA tournament he’s “much more comfortable” and he thinks his “team’s comfortable.”
“We’re obviously excited to be here, but I know we’re not satisfied,” he said. “I think that’s a good formula. I like our mindset.”
He also knows mindset doesn’t translate into victories. Good play does.
“We need to stay locked in,” he said. “That’s been my message.”
Arizona center Oumar Ballo said he’s feeling “better, much better than when I played vs. UCLA” which means he’s good to go against Princeton. He had his lefthand taped up but was out there for the team’s shootaround on Wednesday. He said he suffered a broken hand against Arizona State on Friday night.
“It’s only going to get better,” he said in the locker room. “I’m going to be fine.”