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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘We’re not surprised’: After earning top overall seed, Gonzaga players and coaches watch Tommy Lloyd, Arizona secure No. 1 seed

March 13, 2022 Updated Sun., March 13, 2022 at 10:04 p.m.

Some aspects of Selection Sunday probably felt different for first-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd. Others felt all too familiar.

For the first time since 2000, Lloyd watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show from a location other than McCarthey Athletic Center, but for the fifth time since 2013 the longtime Gonzaga assistant watched the team he coaches earn one of the tournament’s four coveted No. 1 seeds.

Lloyd will take the Pac-12 regular season and conference tournament champion Wildcats into the 2022 NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed in the South Region playing the winner of a First Four game between Bryant and Wright State. Lloyd’s tournament debut as a head coach will tip off at 4:27 p.m. PT Friday at Viejas Arena in San Diego.

Minutes before Arizona’s pairing was announced, the school where Lloyd began his coaching career 22 years ago was announced as the top overall seed. Gonzaga will play Georgia State at 1:15 p.m. PT at the Moda Center in Portland.

According to ESPN Stats & Information researcher Jared Berson, Mark Few and Tommy Lloyd will become the first coaches to share a bench one season and lead different teams to a No. 1 seed the following season.

“They’ve just done a good job, you watch that team play and there’s a lot of similarities. He’s done a good job with personnel that was always there,” Few told reporters after the Selection Show. “He got them to play confidently, got them to play together, he got them to believe in themselves. Sean (Miller) had a good program going down there and those are some very, very good players so I think it’s important that’s talked about too. But Tommy did a great job like we all knew he would.

“He’s a great coach, he’s got a great feel and it’s just fun to get to see him play. I haven’t had that many opportunities to sit down and watch a whole game. So that’s what was really cool.”

Lloyd’s hire last April was celebrated by Wildcats fans, although a few prominent alumni were skeptical of the school’s decision not to hire a former player.

Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas were both vocal of the hire, with Arenas saying on Jefferson’s Instagram live stream, “An assistant doesn’t have credentials. I don’t even want to say his name because he doesn’t deserve – you’re an assistant coach. You assist. Do your job.”

Lloyd didn’t have many skeptics in Spokane, though, and the former Zags assistant hushed those who were critical of the hire by leading the Wildcats to a 31-3 record while becoming the first Pac-12 coach to lead a team to a regular -season and conference -tournament championship in his first season. Playing a fast-paced offensive style that’s reminiscent in many ways to Gonzaga, Arizona is No. 2 in the AP Top 25, NCAA NET rankings and KenPom.

“It’s really crazy, especially with how much criticism (Lloyd) was getting at the beginning of the season of like, they wanted a different coach,” Gonzaga forward Anton Watson said. “He’s one of the best coaches in college basketball, just like coach Few.

“It’s really exciting to see him do that and players like Big O (Oumar Ballo). I’m just proud of them right now. I watched their game yesterday so it’s cool.”

Ballo, who Lloyd initially recruited to Gonzaga, has been a key presence off Arizona’s bench in his first season with the Wildcats, averaging 7.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.

With the exception of Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton, every player on Gonzaga’s roster either played for Lloyd in Spokane or developed a relationship with him during the recruiting process. All but Bolton, Chet Holmgren, Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman were teammates of Ballo’s last season, and Lloyd’s staff isn’t short of Gonzaga ties, including Riccardo Fois, TJ Benson, Ken Nakagawa and Rem Bakamus.

“That was a special thing also,” Few said.

Lloyd’s overnight success has surprised many in the college basketball world, especially in the wake of the program’s one-year postseason ban. Arizona was penalized following a 2017 NCAA investigation that focused on corruption in college basketball and its recruiting practices.

Sunday’s news wasn’t shocking to most in Spokane.

“It’s super cool. We’re not surprised though,” Gonzaga forward Drew Timme said. “Such great coaches and players over there. Even Big O’s been dominating over there so we love just keeping tabs on them and checking in on them. They deserve it, they’re a really good team and we’re really not surprised they are where they are, just because of how good of a coach Tommy is, too.

“He really made this program go as well with coach (Few) all those years. It’s great to see them succeed.”

Timme and Ballo texted after Arizona overcame a 12-point second-half deficit to beat UCLA in Saturday’s Pac-12 title game in Las Vegas – just a few miles from where the Zags won the West Coast Conference Tournament four days earlier.

“We’re excited for them and we knew it was coming,” Timme said. “We expected that from them and they expected that from us. It’s kind of just how the Zag way goes.”

A Gonzaga-Arizona matchup in the NCAA Tournament isn’t possible until the national championship game, meaning Bulldog players and coaches can openly support Lloyd and the Wildcats through the first few weeks of March Madness.

“It was really cool, I’m always rooting for him so to see him succeed and have all the success he has over there at Arizona,” sophomore Julian Strawther said. “It’s really cool for me and I’m really happy for him.”

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