‘Pressure is privilege’: Arizona men’s basketball optimistic about Pac-12 Tournament

Arizona men’s basketball coach Tommy Lloyd has helped transform the Wildcats into one of the top teams in the country. He is confident they can showcase their talents in Las Vegas. (Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Arizona’s No. 2 ranked men’s basketball team has been a well-oiled machine this season under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd, compiling a 28-3 record that includes an 18-2 mark in the Pac-12.

With the team success, which includes a regular-season conference title, has come individual awards. Bennedict Mathurin, Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis were named All-Conference first team selections and Dalen Terry received an honorable mention nod. Mathurin was also named Pac-12 Player of the Year and Koloko, both Most Improved and Defensive Player of the Year. Pelle Larsson was named Sixth Man of the Year, and Lloyd, Coach of the Year.

“I think it’s just the recognition we kind of deserve,” Koloko said. “When you win games you’re going to have great recognition. Coach used to tell us every day with team success comes individual accolades. I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.”

Mathurin described his Player of the Year award as “a great achievement.

“I’m happy I got Player of the Year, “ said Mathurin, who added, “I wouldn’t be able to without my team. It’s a great honor.”

Lloyd said he’s proud of what his players accomplished during the regular season and added, “Now, I’m ready for what’s coming next.”

Arizona will play its first game of the tournament today against Stanford. Success in March is what matters the most and the Wildcats believe they can still improve as a team, starting with the Pac-12 Tournament at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“You can improve on some of your schemes, maybe some of your execution,” Lloyd said. “Obviously more situations are going to pop up. These games are going to get closer, they’re going to hit hard and fast and you just want to do everything you can to put your team in the best position to be prepared when that moment arrives.”

At this time of the year, the Wildcats are clear about their focus. It is to survive and advance.

“We’re not going there to defend anything,” Koloko said. “We’re going to go there and we’re going to be hungry. Last year we didn’t have a chance to play in the Pac-12 Tournament, so basically all of us want to win that, too.”

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Win or lose, the Wildcats will be gaining valuable postseason experience, which, as Lloyd noted, they don’t have a lot of. The program didn’t participate in the postseason last year because of a self-imposed ban stemming from NCAA violations related to recruiting. And they are one of the younger teams in college basketball. Led by Larsson, Terry, Tubelis and Mathurin, the majority of their roster consists of freshmen and sophomores.

“We’re going to attack it and see how it plays out,” he said. “Then at the end of the day if it’s successful or unsuccessful, we’re going to learn from it and hopefully be better the next week.”

Tubelis said the team has “high standards” and added, “We’re ready to win this tournament so I think it will be fun.”

When March arrives, the pressure intensifies in college basketball. The stakes are higher and the margin of victory narrower. The Wildcats are ready for whatever March brings to them.

“We’re just thinking about game after game,” Mathurin said. “It’s like do or die.”

Lloyd framed the intensity of March in a positive light.

“Pressure is a privilege,” he said. “It’s great to be playing in meaningful games. These are all opportunities and we must take advantage of some opportunities. It’s just an exciting time in college basketball.”

Garrie Ester Gare-ree Eh-str
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Garrie Ester expects to graduate in spring 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Ester, who has completed the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at ASU, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.