Davis’ Deep Dives: Arizona basketball enjoying rapid rise under Tommy Lloyd

First-year head coach Tommy Lloyd is already guiding Arizona basketball to new heights.

Could it be that both Sean Miller and Arizona won the breakup?

Surely, the departed coach’s blood pressure thanks him after five years of nonstop scrutiny. A respite from the spotlight should do him well. (And, in the meantime, he’s emerged as an engaging and insightful podcast host!)

Arizona, on the other hand, has found the early Coach of the Year favorite in first-year frontman Tommy Lloyd. After 20 years alongside Mark Few at Gonzaga, Lloyd migrated south to Tucson to restore ‘Zona to a top program. Almost a month into the season, the Wildcats are quickly ascending. So … what makes them tick?

CBB player rankings: Koloko, Mathurin, Tubelis, Kriisa in top 500
Heat Check CBB Top 25: Arizona up to No. 10
Rising star to watch: Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa

An egalitarian offense

Watching Arizona basketball this season, the first word that comes to mind is “unselfish.” The players don’t care who scores, who gets the credit, who shines the brightest — just so long as they win. Sophomore point guard Kerr Kriisa embodies this mindset. The Estonian floor general always, and I mean always, looks to set his teammates up for success.

In the halfcourt, he operates surgically out of ball screens, sensing the location of the open man. In transition, his eyes survey the floor, ready to deliver outlet passes. Observe the clip below, which showcases Kriisa’s fancy open-court passing. His no-look dime to Azuolas Tubelis directly leads to a drawn foul:

But beyond the impressive pass, note how excited Kriisa gets for the big man. This play functions as a microcosm of Arizona’s impeccable chemistry. The ‘Cats currently lead the country in assist rate, further evidence of the infectiousness of Kriisa’s ball movement. For instance, look at Dalen Terry. The 6-7 sophomore has blossomed as a PnR ballhandler, more than doubling his assist percentage from a season ago. Fellow sophomore Bennedict Mathurin also shines on ball, knowing when to hunt his offense and when to distribute.

With such dynamic perimeter players, the floor has opened up for ‘Zona’s frontcourt. Junior Christian Koloko has elevated his play in his first year under Lloyd, improving as a rebounder, passer, free throw shooter, and finisher. The latter appears to be the most significant development, as the 7-footer has converted a whopping 81.2 percent of his shots at the rim (Hoop-Math).

On a similar note, Tubelis has built upon a terrific freshman season. The sophomore forward provides Arizona with a lethal threat in both the high- and mid-post. Especially effective is his proficiency on the short roll: Tubelis makes smart passes to the corner but also attacks ferociously off of one to two dribbles. In the following clip, the Lithuanian dunks Brandon Johns into the Baltic Sea:

A defensive bedrock

Yet as pure as Arizona’s offense has been, its defense has looked even better. Koloko stands a stalwart in the paint, annihilating shots around the basket. The on-off numbers divulge the importance of his rim protection:

Image from Hoop-Explorer

Moreover, his presence allows the ‘Cats switchable perimeter corps to gamble on stunts and double teams. And much like the offense, Kriisa catalyzes this. The Headbanded Harasser often pesters opposing guards full court, and he shows a knack for disrupting his foes in the halfcourt. On this possession from the Michigan game, he intercepts a pass after Mathurin’s perfectly timed double:

Later in that same game, Kriisa initiates the double team, this time on Moussa Diabate. After picking his pocket, he throws another pinpoint outlet pass for an easy bucket:

Can Lloyd forge the Wildcats into national title contenders in his first season? It’s not as outlandish as it may sound. Arizona has the blueprint — an elite defense, wing scorers who can fill it up, big men with complementary skillsets, and an energetic point guard who settles the team.

If they can sustain their early level of play, the Arizona basketball desert dwellers may end their 20-year Final Four drought.

Header image courtesy of Arizona Athletics.



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