Despite tournament inexperience, Arizona men’s basketball brings confidence to March Madness

Arizona center Christian Koloko and his Wildcats teammates say they aren’t rattled by the large stage and expectations connected to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Wesley Johnson/Cronkite News)

SAN DIEGO – Cockiness, confidence, crust. Whatever you want to call it, No. 1 seed Arizona men’s basketball has it.

The group with relatively little NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament experience is continually seen hyping up teammates and engulfing its fans with excitement.

Individual self expression gets them going. It’s their personality, sophomore guard and Phoenix native Dalen Terry said, and “another edge for our team to keep winning,”.

The program, which hasn’t played in an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament game since losing to Buffalo in the first round of the 2018 event, is comprised of eight players with sophomore or younger eligibility in the 10-man rotation.

Sixth-year senior guard Justin Kier is also playing in his first NCAA Tournament after stops at George Mason and Georgia. Despite being unranked early in the season, Kier said the team confidently held the expectation of greatness.

“We kind of bonded and clicked really early, but you just can’t go into the season thinking you’re going to be this or that, ranked this or that,” Kier said. “Those tough road games you go on and you see how your team adjusts and see how close you guys get. We always knew we were going to be pretty special. We believed in it and we’re going to continue to do that.”

The theme of tournament inexperience can only be tied to the players on the floor. Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd was an integral part of consistent tournament appearances as an assistant coach on Mark Few’s staff at Gonzaga.

With a 31-3 record in his first year guiding the Arizona ship, Lloyd said he and his team haven’t tried to do anything different from what it has done all season. He expects his team to, “let it rip.”

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Acknowledging his players’ tournament inexperience, Lloyd referenced a conversation with Arizona alum and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

“He was telling me how cool it is to go through it the first time,” Lloyd said. “For him, when they made that run to the NBA Finals the first year, he just told me, there’s a beautiful innocence about it because you haven’t been institutionalized yet.

“So maybe that goes for me and the team, where we’ve got kind of an ignorance-is-bliss type of approach and we’ll go out, be in attack mode because that’s the way we’ve played all year.”

Lloyd has tried to express his tournament experience to his team ahead of this weekend.

“He lets us know. He’s been there,” Kier said. “He’s just giving us, educating us on that stuff. He’s been there, we trust him. That’s all we gotta do. We don’t ask questions because he’s got the formula. So we’ll just continue to be behind him and listen to him and focus on winning games.”

In the 25th anniversary season of the program’s only men’s basketball national championship, the regular season brought the program back to the national spotlight in a positive manner. Despite Arizona’s struggles in previous seasons, Terry believes the program always had a target.

“Even if we didn’t have that number next to our name we’re still going to be hunted,” Terry said. “Wherever we played, they always want to beat Arizona. We know that every time we step on the court, it’s the other team’s Super Bowl, whether we’re the No. 1 team in the country or the 356th team in the country. Just want to make that clear.”

It’s that sense of grandeur with which the Wildcats play. The program looks to harness its talent and confidence in hopes of reaching its first Sweet Sixteen since 2017. The Wildcats tip off against 16-seed Wright State at 4:27 p.m. MST on Friday afternoon at Viejas Arena in San Diego.

Alex Coil ah-lex coil
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alex Coil expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Coil, who is in Barrett, the Honors College, was the broadcasting and media relations manager for the Florence Y’alls baseball team in 2021. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Wesley Johnson expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Johnson, who has interned as a digital editor and social media manager at Arizona PBS, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

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