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What we learned about Arizona men’s basketball after Tommy Lloyd’s first 2 games

arizona-wildcats-tommy-lloyd-basketball-mens-reaction-koloko-tubelis-mathurin-turnovers-assists-2021 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“I didn’t expect, but I’ll take it.”

That’s how Tommy Lloyd began his press conference after Arizona’s 104-50 win over UT-Rio Grande Valley on Friday night, his second as the Wildcats’ head coach.

Turns out Lloyd had prepared the Wildcats for what he thought would be a physical game that would test their toughness. Instead they were the ones that asserted their will on the overmatched Vaqueros.

“What I was looking for from this game is, it’s gonna be a street fight,” Lloyd said. “Are we down for a street fight, because to be a great team you can play fast and do all these things that are cute, but unless you’re down to street fight, you’re gonna have nights where you get out toughed, and I didn’t want our team to get punched tonight. I thought that they had the potential to come here and be really physical and aggressive and I thought our guys came out and hit first and then hit often and then kind of broke their will.”

The 104 points were tied for the most Arizona has scored in a regulation game in more than 12 years, while the 54-point margin of victory was the Wildcats’ largest in almost five years.

Combined with an 81-52 win over NAU in the regular season opener on Tuesday, here is what we’ve learned about Lloyd’s team so far:

Averaging 90 points a game is a goal, but not necessarily a realistic one

Through two games, Arizona is averaging 92.5 points per game, which would break the school record of 90.8 set in 1997-98. Whether this squad can maintain that pace isn’t likely, Lloyd said.

“In college basketball, it’s hard to score 90 points, and average 90 points a game is almost impossible in this day and age,” he said. “So I mean, if you’re playing consistently and you can average over 80 you’re gonna be one of the top scoring teams in the country.”

Lloyd said a fast style of play works for his team in two ways: it puts pressure on the opponent to keep up while also giving your own squad a some leeway on nights when the shots aren’t falling.

“There’s gonna be a nightmare it’s gonna be hard to get to 70, but if you get to 70 against some of those great defensive teams, maybe they’ll struggle to get to 70, because you know what, I think we’re a great defensive team,” he said. “So that’s the reason I like to score, not because it’s fun, because I think it gives us a margin for error.”

Arizona shot below 41 percent against NAU—though missing the final 11 shots in garbage time didn’t help that—then jumped up to 60.7 percent against UTRGV. He said his players are “figuring out how they can score easier” in the free-flowing system.

That being said, Lloyd is definitely a proponent of the 2-point shot over the 3-pointer. Arizona is 19 for 54 (35.2 percent) from deep, which is okay, but not compared to the 60.6 percent rate on 2s, including 23 of 27 against UTRGV. He noted that, in the first half against the Vaqueros the Wildcats were 4 of 15 from outside and 16 of 17 from inside.

“The value of the 2-point shot is so underrated, because they’re at the rim, they (create) foul pressure,” Lloyd said. “You put 10 fouls on guys, their best players are on the bench rather than just jacking a lot of threes. You can score 100 points making a bunch of twos. It’ll be a little bit of a give and take. I don’t want to crush their spirit and tell them they can’t take the threes, but I just think we just have to have a little bit of a feel. Maybe as we get a little more experience, we’ll walk that fine line a little better.”

It’s worth noting that Gonzaga, where Lloyd spent the previous 21 seasons as an assistant, set the NCAA record for 2-point shooting in 2020-21 at 63.9 percent.

The big men are going to play a huge role

Playing up-tempo doesn’t mean Arizona’s bigs are going to take a back seat to the guards and wings. If anything, they’re the key to the system working and they’ve showed that so far during the first two games.

Forward Azuolas Tubelis is averaging a team-best 16.5 points per game, while center Christian Koloko is chipping in 13 per game after a career-high 18 along with 11 rebounds against UTRGV. And a good amount of that has come in transition, not just them setting up camp in the paint.

“I think he could be the best running big man in the country,” Lloyd said of Tubelis, who is shooting 76.5 percent from the field. “If you notice, he’s running the floor and (Koloko) is trailing him. That’s because Zu is so fast, and I think if he is playing against other fours, he has an advantage in early-possession post-ups.”

As for Koloko, the offensive production has been a huge revelation and no doubt is due in part to him having a full offseason of strength and conditioning with the UA staff. Former coach Sean Miller noted on many occasions last year that Koloko was probably the player most impacted by COVID restrictions that kept players away from campus during the spring and summer of 2020.

“I think he’s a force,” Lloyd said. “He impacts the game every possession at both ends. And I think he’s going to gain more and more confidence as the year goes on. I think people are going to have their hands full figuring out what to do with him.”

Don’t worry, though, Koloko is still a master shot blocker who appears to have gotten even better. He’s swatted five in each game so far, the first UA player to do that to start a season in at least 25 years, and he was the first Wildcat to go for 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a game since Jordan Hill in 2008.

Not everyone has figured out Lloyd’s system yet

Bennedict Mathurin had 13 points against UTRGV, up from eight in the opener, but he’s just 6 of 21 from the field and 2 of 10 from 3-point range. As a freshman he shot 47.1 and 41.8 percent, respectively.

Is this signs of a sophomore regression? Nope, says Lloyd, who thinks it’s more a matter of Mathurin still figuring out how he and his skill set fit into the new offense.

“I don’t think Benn has ever played in a movement-based system,” Lloyd said. “Rarely are we calling plays for any individual. The plays are happening randomly. I can’t necessarily dictate who is going to be in the next action or who’s going to get the next screen or we’re going to get a shot here. But that’s also what makes it really hard for the defense to figure out. So he’ll get more comfortable in it and he’ll learn how to pick and choose his spots and where he can have a ton of success. And he’s had success. And now he just needs to have it a little bit more consistently.”

Lloyd said he’s noticed some hesitancy from Mathurin, not so much with his shooting but in hustle-focused areas.

“Now he’s been picking and choosing his effort spots a little bit and ... if you go back and watch film you see some (times) where he’s kind of pausing or hesitant in the action,” he said. “I’m talking about to a loose ball, to a rebound blockout, to a defensive assignment. I’m not talking like hesitant to shoot. I think when those synapses kind of tighten a little bit I think he’s gonna turn into a force. I know we’re on the right path for him. I’ve been down this path with good players like him before and we just got to stay on it and he’ll figure it out.”

All this sharing is great as long as it’s not with the other team

Arizona recorded 25 assists in both games, the first time it’s done that in back-to-back contests since 2004. The Wildcats are second nationally in assist rate, with 80.6 percent of its baskets coming off a pass.

And everyone is getting involved in the sharing party, with six different players logging at least four assists so far.

“I think there’s great joy in making an assist, right?,” Lloyd said. “You’re doing something for somebody else. You create a culture where guys feel as good about making an assist as they do a three, now you got something.”

The flip side to that, though, is all that passing increases the chance of live-ball turnovers. Arizona gave it away 18 times against UTRGV, triple its turnover total against NAU, and 10 of those were on bad passes or lost balls that resulted in steals for the Vaqueros.

A better team is going to get more than six points off 10 quick-change situations.

“I’m not happy with those,” Lloyd said. “We got to take care of the ball. You play fast, you play with fundamentals. You can’t let your guard down because, like I said, a lot of these plays are happening randomly. It’s something we’ll definitely address. Six is an anomaly (from) last game; 18, it better be an anomaly, because we need to be right in the middle of those two is probably the ideal spot.”