SACRAMENTO – During his 20 years as a Gonzaga assistant, Tommy Lloyd took international recruiting to a new level, securing players from Lithuania (Domantas Sabonis), France (Ronny Turiaf) and nearly ever corner of the world.
He has successfully continued that approach at Arizona, which sports a roster of seven European players, including Lithuanian forward Azoulas Tubelis, who will look to help lead the Wildcats deep into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament as they begin play against the No. 15 seed Princeton Tigers Thursday in Sacramento.
Other key international contributors include Kerr Kriisa and Pelle Larson, confirming that Lloyd “loves international players and the European style of basketball,” Tubelis said.
A big reason, Kriisa said, is that much of European play is unselfish.
“Here you are maybe more oriented on one-on-one basketball, but overseas we are taught at a young age to become a unit as a team and how to appreciate your teammates,” he said.
For the Wildcats, the unselfishness has been on display all season long. The Wildcats have averaged 19.3 assists per game as a team, which ranks second in the nation among Division I teams.
Tubelis has been a star for the Wildcats all year. The junior from Lithuania averaged 19.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.
After a dominant regular season and Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament run, Tubelis will look to help lead the Wildcats deep into the tournament.
His standout play so far has earned him multiple awards, including being named to the All-Pac-12 First Team and honored as the Pac-12 tournament MVP. He was also named to the AP All-America second team, the second consecutive year that a Wildcats player was an AP second team All-American, following the lead of Bennedict Mathurin.
Tubelis attributes his success in large part to the system that has been set up at Arizona.
“It’s because of them,” Tubelis said. “I like having such good teammates here, who aren’t selfish and pass the ball.”
Azuolas thrived in Lithuania just as he has for the Wildcats. His teammate and brother, Tautvilas, said the experience was unique for the duo in their home country playing basketball.
“It was fun. It’s way different than here,” Tautvilas said. “Here high school basketball is well done and they have coaches and everything.
“We had PE teachers coach us.”
Azuolas and Tautvilas would eventually play for pro teams in their home country before coming to Arizona.
The European style of play embraced by the Tubelis brothers and their European teammates complement Lloyd’s system well. Although some believe Azuolas chose Arizona for this reason, the truth is the Tucson university was one of the few programs that showed real interest.
“Arizona was the only team who offered me a scholarship,” Azuolas said. “I took a risk because I did not know anything about the United States or the NCAA and all that stuff. I only knew that I could fit really well in United States basketball.”
Although Arizona may have been his only offer, the pairing appears to be an ideal one. Azuolas has been a key contributer all season long, and will be needed if the Wildcats make a tournament run.
Azuolas and the Wildcats are coming off a disappointing run in the tournament last year – they advanced to the Sweet 16 but had higher expectations – but he remains confident this year will end better.
“Last year I got a lot of experience and figured out what it means for the program,” he said. “I am more focused and locked in.”
Coach Lloyd is confident he will get back on track this time around.
“I like where he’s at. He’s had an amazing season,” Lloyd said. “I think he’s got to focus to keep that going and make the most of this moment.”