March Toughness? Wildcats aim at final Pac-12 title, deep NCAA tournament run in Tommy Lloyd’s third season

In just two seasons with Arizona, coach Tommy Lloyd has posted 61 victories for the Wildcats. (File photo by Nikash Nath/Cronkite News)

LAS VEGAS – It was an opportunity over 20 years in the making, and it is clearly paying off.

In Tommy Lloyd’s first two seasons leading the Arizona Wildcats, the former longtime Gonzaga assistant coach already has 61 wins under his belt. Loaded up with a strong foundation of toughness and three of his best scorers back for the 2023-24 season, Lloyd is prepared to board the bus and start Arizona’s Pac-12 Conference farewell tour.

The Wildcats play their final exhibition game tonight against New Mexico Highlands at McKale Center, and tip off the regular season Nov. 6 against Morgan State.

Before taking over for former Wildcats coach Sean Miller, Lloyd spent more than two decades honing his skills as a coach and recruiter at Gonzaga, where he was an assistant under Mark Few, and he believes that foundation prepared him to be the CEO of his own Division I program.

Now he is building his own program’s foundation at Arizona on toughness, a trait that he believes can become the team’s cornerstone this season.

“I never felt that we’re soft,” Lloyd said at Pac-12 Media Day. “I think we play a very aggressive, physical style of basketball. But at the end of the day, you get in a single-elimination tournament, and toughness comes in lots of forms.”

During the first round of the NCAA Tournament in March, the Wildcats were stunned by the 15th-seeded Princeton Tigers in a first-round loss. Although Arizona and basketball experts expected an easy first-round win, the disappointing finish taught Lloyd what he needs to fix as a coach.

“The first thing I thought after that Princeton game is, I need to increase our margin for error,” he said. “And to me, toughness is a way that you do that. If you want to be competitive in these games, sometimes you’ve got to be able to physically dominate your opponent.

“We’re going to strive for that. We know it’s going to be challenging. We know other teams fight back really hard.”

Throughout Lloyd’s time in Tucson, the Wildcats have shown glimpses of the kind of toughness he envisions on a consistent basis. Chosen to win the Pac-12 men’s basketball title, the Wildcats have apparently convinced media members that the group is ready to bring consistency to a roster loaded with talent.

Last year, the Wildcats trailed by nine in the second half, but were able to grind out a 61-59 win against the UCLA Bruins for the Pac-12 Tournament title, winning on former guard Courtney Ramey’s three-pointer with less than 17 seconds remaining in the game.

Lloyd’s approach to building his program has garnered respect and results from the basketball community. After winning the conference title last year, Lloyd was named coach of the year by the Associated Press, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, National Association of Basketball Coaches and the Pac-12.

His methods have gradually made an impact with his players by producing back-to-back Pac-12 Most Improved Player award winners Christian Koloko in 2022 and Oumar Ballo in 2023. Koloko went on to sign a three-year contract with the Toronto Raptors in 2022.

Four U of A Players on the Bench

From left, Arizona freshman guard Conrad Martinez, sophomore guard Jaden Bradley, senior guard Caleb Love and sophomore forward Henri Veesaar are members of an Arizona roster that was ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press preseason men’s college basketball rankings. (Photo by Bennett Silyvn/Cronkite News)

Ballo and Lloyd’s relationship began at Gonzaga in 2021 and the 7-foot, 260-pound center followed his coach from Spokane, Washington to Tucson.

“Arizona was one of my top three schools,” Ballo said. “I went to Gonzaga because of Coach Lloyd, and that was probably the best decision because he led me where I needed to be. I’m grateful I’m here today, went through my struggle, and found my own way. I’m thankful for the program to give me a second chance.”

Lloyd has witnessed growth from Ballo on and off the hardwood over the past few years.

“Big O (Ballo) has a special place in my heart,” Lloyd said. “This is a guy I knew was going to be successful because he has amazing high character. For me, the conversations I’ve had with him, it’s not so much statistical growth or anything like that.”

Arizona guard Pelle Larsson has also trusted Lloyd’s process to help him improve as a player. Larsson’s role as a Wildcat has varied over the years. The native of Sweden has bounced in and out of the starting line up since the 2021-2022 season, but he never gave up faith.

When Larsson consistently came off the bench, he proved himself and secured the 2021-22 Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year award. Larsson says his ability to adjust to any team role comes from a desire to be selfless.

“I don’t think there was any, like, big adjustments necessary because it’s kind of what I was taught to do – what matters when you’re on the court,” Larsson said. “I was taught to just play to win. I’ve been just trusting that and trusting my coach, my teammates, that what we do in practice is going to get us better, and just stick to the plan and help as much as I can.”

This season Arizona will play 13 games on the Pac-12 Network and 10 games on ESPN’s family of networks. The Wildcats face Duke on Nov. 10 on ESPN2. They face Florida Atlantic, with five starters returning from a team that advanced to last season’s Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, on Dec. 23 in the Desert Classic in Las Vegas.

They open Pac-12 play Dec. 29 at California and the Wildcats will try to avenge a rare homecourt loss on Feb. 17 when they face rival Arizona State at McKale.

The Sun Devils shocked the Wildcats during the regular season in Tucson last season when Desmond Cambridge Jr. hit a 60-foot desperation three-point heave at the final buzzer. The Sun Devils then play host to the Wildcats on Feb. 28.

For Arizona, building a team-wide sense of toughness starts in practice when the Wildcats are competing against each other. The Wildcats believes if they can compete at a high level against each other, then they can take on anything their non-conference and conference foes will throw at them.

“Our practices get really intense,” Ballo said. “Guys go after each other, and it’s so physical. But most importantly, it’s a mental approach because me and Pelle were there last year, and the way the season ended, man, it hurt us.”

With Ballo, Larsson and sophomore top performer Kylan Boswell returning and full buy-in from the newbees and returners, the Wildcats hope to live up to the preseason predictions and repeat as Pac-12 Champions before moving next season to the hoops-crazy Big 12 Conference.

“All in all, we have a system, and I don’t know if we recruit to it, play to it, whatever,” Lloyd said. “But we’re going to play fast. We’re going to move the ball. We’re going to play and ball out harder.”

And, the Wildcats believe, tougher.

Alexis Davis uh-lek-sis day-vis (she/ her/ hers )
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alexis Davis expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. She has interned at the USA Today Network’s Commercial Appeal and ESPN’s Andscape as well as written feature and enterprise stories for Front Office Sports and the MEAC conference. She is an intern in the Phoenix Mercury digital and social departments.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.