Tommy Lloyd is moving quickly but thoughtfully, much the way his Arizona basketball team did for the previous two hours on the court at T-Mobile Arena.
Lloyd exchanges a handshake and good-luck sentiments with Michigan coach Juwan Howard outside the interview room after the Wildcats’ impressive 80-62 victory Nov. 21 in Las Vegas.
During a 5-minute walk to Arizona’s locker room with the travel party gathering swiftly for the team’s charter flight to Tucson, Lloyd answers a question from an Arizona staffer and several more from a reporter, hugs wife Chanelle and heads for an exit door.
He’s pleased with the victory over then-No. 4 Michigan that vaulted Arizona into the AP Top 25 poll the next day, but the former Gonzaga assistant coach’s plans to return Arizona to a consistent national championship contender go way beyond the outcome of a single game.
“I didn’t want the focus on this game because I don’t think this game means we’ve arrived or it’s going to define our season or future,” Lloyd said. “I’m trying to build a solid foundation and keep building on it.
“Obviously, it’s a good step, but I didn’t want to make too much of it because if it didn’t go well I wanted to believe in what we’re doing and didn’t want everyone to panic.”
Arizona fans, and more important his players, are certainly starting to believe in Lloyd after a 6-0 start and a No. 11 ranking. He became the first Division I head coach to win his first five games by an average of at least 30 points while knocking off a top-five opponent, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
“Not really (surprised),” sophomore guard Dalen Terry said after the Michigan rout. “Coach always says we’re going to do what we do every time. We just looked at (Michigan) as another opportunity and we’re going to play our game at our own pace and our own style.”
The mood wasn’t quite as rosy when Arizona hired Lloyd to replace Sean Miller in April, nine days after GU’s bid for an undefeated season ended with an 86-70 loss to Baylor in the title game.
Lloyd’s GU resume was impeccable, but a contingent of fans preferred a proven head coach. Several former Arizona standouts, including Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas, lobbied loudly that the new coach needed to have ties to the Wildcats’ program.
Lloyd, who said in his introductory news conference that Arizona was the only head coaching job that could get him to leave Gonzaga, put his head down, assembled a staff heavy on Arizona and Gonzaga connections, and immersed himself in recruiting – both future Wildcats and re-recruiting current players who were considering transferring.
“The whole team, that’s what you have to do in this day and age when kids can play right away. Arizona has good players, so don’t think they weren’t getting poached,” Lloyd said. “We got the guys I wanted back. I felt good from Day 1 we could build a great culture with the guys we had back and we were able to add a few pieces, so it’s been great.”
Guard James Akinjo left for Baylor and guard Terrell Brown exited for Washington, but the Wildcats retained the eventual starting five of Kerr Kriisa, Bennedict Mathurin, Christian Koloko, Azuolas Tubelis and Terry.
Lloyd added depth with former Gonzaga center Oumar Ballo, ex-Eastern Washington forward Kim Aiken Jr., Utah transfer Pelle Larsson and Georgia transfer Justin Kier. Ballo, who is averaging 13.1 minutes, is one of eight international Wildcats.
Kriisa, a sophomore from Estonia, put his name in the transfer portal but within days opted to return.
“It was, ‘Listen, I’m the most European-American coach in the game,’ ” Lloyd said of his recruiting pitch to Kriisa. “ ‘If you’re going to walk away from this, you’re going to regret it.’ ”
With the roster mostly intact, Lloyd set about implementing his system, which, naturally, looks quite similar to Gonzaga’s. Why wouldn’t it look that way after Lloyd worked for two decades with coach Mark Few, helping build the Zags into a national power?
Arizona leads the nation at 23.5 assists per game and averages 91.5 points, third nationally. That compares to 75.4 points and 15.5 assists in Miller’s final season.
“I learned a lot from coach Few and he let me contribute, so everything that I’m coaching are things I’m comfortable with,” Lloyd said. “I’m not making anything up or living in fantasy land like I have all the answers. It’s time-tested, proven stuff. That’s what we’re doing.”
The Wildcats run at every opportunity, as Michigan found out, and they are unselfish. Eight players average at least 1.5 assists per game. Tubelis, a 6-foot-11 sophomore from Lithuania, is tops at 16.5 points and the 7-1 Koloko, a native of Cameroon, is next at 16.2 points and 3.5 blocks.
Arizona employs multiple ballhandlers with playmaking ability to go with skilled bigs, not unlike Gonzaga’s personnel over the years. The Wildcats’ average time of possession is 14.2 seconds, fourth nationally in pace of play, according to KenPom. Gonzaga is at 14.9 seconds, 10th nationally.
“We run some plays, but we play,” Lloyd said. “We have concepts we play out of, and then these guys have bought into those concepts that we drill and coach. If you turn your head against us, we’re probably going to cut.”
Sort of like a team based in Spokane.
“I knew (the Arizona job) was a monster. It’s a big deal in Arizona and Tucson – they love Arizona basketball,” Lloyd said. “The biggest thing for me, and I’ll give credit to coach Few, is sometimes you don’t realize how ready you are, you know what I mean, because I was happy and I wasn’t searching for jobs.
“Once I got the job, it’s been really seamless and natural. I’m loving it every day and loving having the opportunity to do my own thing.”
Lloyd points out that his smooth transition was made possible by his assistant coaches and support staff, including several who were at Gonzaga when he was Few’s right-hand man.
Arizona assistant coach Riccardo Fois spent five years on GU’s staff . He was a player development coach for the Phoenix Suns the past two years. TJ Benson, who was GU’s coordinator of basketball administration, is recruiting director and Lloyd’s special assistant.
Former Zag walk-on Rem Bakamus is Arizona’s director of player development after serving as a grad assistant for Baylor the last three years. Ken Nakagawa, who was at GU for five years as a grad assistant and video coordinator, is the Wildcats’ director of advanced scouting.
Lloyd retained associate head coach Jack Murphy from Miller’s staff and hired Steve Robinson, who has nearly 40 years in Division I coaching, including stints at Kansas and North Carolina.
“Ken and TJ are my right-hand guys, Rem’s like a nephew and then Ricky is like my little brother, so these guys know me and the culture I want,” Lloyd said. “The cohesion has been great. Jack is a tireless worker, knows Arizona inside and out. Getting coach Rob, it’s been a godsend. He and I are like-minded. It’s just been a ton of fun being with these guys and they’ve really helped me embrace this new role.”
One thing Lloyd wasn’t eager to embrace was the Arizona-Gonzaga game that was scheduled for November at the McCarthey Athletic Center, the return game of a home-and-home series. The game has been pushed back, perhaps to the 2024-25 season.
“Listen, Gonzaga is my second-favorite team,” Lloyd said. “I love those guys, love the coaches, it’s family. You know what, I think both programs can stand on their own. We’ll see what happens down the line.”
He has plenty on his plate. The Wildcats face nonconference road tests against Illinois on Dec. 11 and No. 13 Tennessee on Dec. 22. Arizona was scheduled to open Pac-12 Conference play against Washington on Thursday, but that game has been postponed due to COVID-19, sources close to the Huskies confirmed to the Seattle Times on Wednesday.
“I’m just trying to keep it simple in my approach,” Lloyd said. “I learned from a great mentor in coach Few, so you know how to come into these games calm and you know the most important thing is to give your team a great plan and confidence.”
Lloyd is focused on creating a family atmosphere and helping his team make steady progress over the next three-plus months.
“We always talk about swag,” he said. “Our Arizona swag is confidence, but it’s backed up with intelligence and effort. They’re getting that, and they’re showing it in the way we’re able to scheme and game plan and understand game situations.
“That’s a ton of fun as a coach because the things you’re trying to help them with are working. And all credit goes to them.”
And to the new head coach.
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