Arizona’s hot start puts men’s college basketball world on notice

The No. 3 Arizona Wildcats suffered their first loss of the season to conference rival UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Tuesday. (Photo by Adrian Bascope/Cronkite News)

LOS ANGELES – Last year was one to forget for the Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team. Their self-imposed postseason ban, after an NCAA investigation brought to light corruption in recruiting, capped a subpar season. The Cats parted ways with long tenured head coach Sean Miller soon after.

UArizona needed a hard reset, and it got just that with head coach Tommy Lloyd, who was hired last spring. Lloyd hails from Gonzaga University, a powerhouse that rarely misses NCAA March Madness, where he was the top assistant for head coach Mark Few.

Lloyd took this week’s loss to UCLA – the Wildcats’ first against 16 wins – in stride.

“Losing has never bothered me, it’s a part of the process, and I don’t mind rolling my sleeves up and trying to figure out how we can be better the next time,” Lloyd said after Tuesday’s 59-75 loss.

During the game, Lloyd prowled the sideline screaming instructions to his players with such passion that he could be heard, faintly, from the press box near the cheap seats at Pauley Pavilion.

Wildcat fans are amped to see what he can do.

“I knew that we were going to be getting a good coach in Tommy Lloyd from Gonzaga,” said Adrian Sibal, who attended the game. Lloyd was well-liked in many college basketball circles and had fan approval from the jump.

Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd talks to the news media after the Wildcats’ 59-75 loss to UCLA on Tuesday. (Photo by Adrian Bascope/Cronkite News)

When the men’s college basketball season started Nov. 9, UArizona was nowhere to be seen on the Associated Press’ Top 25 college basketball poll. But without much roster turnover, Arizona’s 17-9 record from 2021 gave the team something to build on. The Wildcats came out the gates swinging in 2022 and won their first 11 games, beating Illinois, Michigan and Wyoming. As of Monday, they were No. 3 in the same poll they initially were left out of.

Beyond coaching, Bennedict Mathurin, Azuolas Tubelis, Christian Koloko and Kerr Kriisa are spearheading the Wildcat attack, all averaging more than 10 points a game. Overall, they statistically are having career years across the board in points, rebounds and assists under Lloyd.

Most successful team has a voice or leader that is the face of the team, and for the Cats, that player is Mathurin.

“I just want to win,” sophomore guard Mathurin said in a news conference before playing UCLA. He leads the team in scoring with 17.4 points per game, up from last year’s 10.4. He seems to have taken the team leadership role with his demeanor on the court and willingness to answer the tough questions from the media after games.

Asked what he took away from the loss to UCLA, Mathurin, who had 16 points on five for 22 shooting, said “it’s just us basically, so we have to pick up each other and if someone is not having a good game, tap them on the butt and keep on going.”

The Wildcats struggled mightily from the field all night, finishing at 30%, and they shot 25% beyond the three-point line. That’s a far cry from their season averages of 48% and 34%, respectively.

UCLA, however, finished with a 50% field goal percentage and hit 47% from behind the arc. The Bruins were led by Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard, who scored 15 points each.

The Wildcats are back home for a three game homestand and looking to rebound from this tough Pac-12 loss. A rematch with UCLA is set for Wednesday at McKale Memorial Center in Tucson.

Sports Reporter, Los Angeles

Adrian Bascope expects to graduate in summer 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Bascope is working for the L.A. sports bureau.

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