The wait is over.
Roughly seven months after being tabbed to take over the program, the Tommy Lloyd era begins at Arizona on Tuesday night when the Wildcats host NAU at McKale Center.
The UA, which was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 and begins the season unranked in both the Associated Press and coaches polls, has not lost a regular-season opener since falling 93-90 at Virginia to open the 2006-07 campaign.
Here’s what to keep an eye out for on Tuesday night:
Who plays, and how much?
Lloyd all but confirmed that Arizona will go with the same starting five—Kerr Kriisa, Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry in the frontcourt, with Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko in the frontcourt—that he used to begin the exhibition against Eastern New Mexico.
After that? It all depends on how the game goes, he said.
“I don’t really see any reason to change,” Lloyd said. “I’ve never been a huge ‘you have to solidify a starting five’ guy because it takes more than five guys to win. Last time out it went okay, but the guys coming in the game really contributed as well.”
Lloyd said his goal is for “everybody” to play against NAU, as was the case against Eastern New Mexico when 10 players logged at least 10 minutes and several walk-ons got in on the action.
“There’s lots of things that factor into that, but I would like to see everybody,” he said. “They’ve all worked hard, and I think they can all contribute. And I think it’s important, early in the year, that you give guys opportunities to have a successful moment, to make a mistake, because those are great things to learn from. These kids work really hard and you want to make sure that they’re bought in and you’re not crushing their spirit on day one.”
Lloyd said he’ll be sure to pull aside the guys who don’t end up playing, or not much at all, to remind them of the role he expects of them this season, something he said he’s already done with several.
“Guys know where they stand. And it’s the cliche, but you’re one play away from needing some of these guys, so I feel good that if the opportunity presented itself they can all have success in some sort of role this year.”
Lloyd said he does expect guard Pelle Larsson, who had foot surgery in the summer, to play in the opener. The Utah transfer did not play in the exhibition against Eastern New Mexico.
Going fast, but not for the fun of it
Arizona went at a blistering pace in the exhibition, its 78 possessions more than in nearly every game during Sean Miller’s 12 seasons at the helm. A similar pace should be expected against NAU and whenever possible, Lloyd said, as long as it’s effective.
“I’m comfortable playing fast as long as it’s layered with fundamentals,” he said. “If we’re playing fast and shooting bad shots and throwing the ball over the court, I don’t think that’s effective.”
Asked about his style being “fun” compared to Miller’s more methodical offensive approach, Lloyd called that a “very relative term” and dependent on the user. Also, that he’s not playing fast for entertainment purposes.
“You’d have to define what you think fun is or what the general fans think fun is,” he said. “I mean, a lot of people love defensive battles, and for me, I don’t particularly play this style of play because I think it’s fun. I think it’s effective. And to me, I’m just gonna hone in on, what are the things that I think impact winning, and that’s where my focus is going to be, with regards to style of play. I’m not chasing a style of play because it’s fun, I’m chasing it because I think it’s effective. So that’s my approach.”
Sticking to the plan
Even if Arizona looks sloppy going fast, though, that’s going to remain how it plays for the foreseeable future. Lloyd has no intention of scrapping everything he and has staff have done since arriving after just a few games.
That being said, he isn’t expecting this first game to be a masterpiece.
“You can’t expect it to be perfect on day one, and you got to have a little bit of patience, as it plays out a little bit because, what’s funny about young players and college basketball, you can have this ideal that you want to achieve, and you work really hard to get there and then you need games to test that,” he said. “To really show where you’re at. And a lot of times you’re short of where you want to be, but the games give you an opportunity to really solidify learning and establish and build habits. So that’s what I’m excited for these games, is just to kind of solidify the way we want to play. I thought we took a step last week, but this is a whole different animal this week and with the games coming up.
Arizona plays its first three games at McKale over an 8-day span before kicking it up a notch in competition when it faces Wichita State and either Michigan or UNLV in Las Vegas.
“For me, it’s just, establishing the standard,” he said. “We want to play with effort, intelligence, and just the style of play that we think we need to be successful. I don’t have like, specific, statistical goals at this point that are worth sharing. We have some that are always on my mind. It’s more of a big picture approach. We’ve spent six months trying to play the way we want to play, develop the style of play, develop players to play that way.”
What NAU brings to the table
NAU begins the 2021-22 season ranked No. 324 out of 358 Division I teams, according to KenPom.com (Arizona is No. 47). The Lumberjacks, who went 6-16 last season, are led by third-year coach Shane Burcar, who took over for now-UA assistant Jack Murphy.
The ‘Jacks didn’t play any public exhibition games, so its uncertain what their rotation will be. Their top returning scorer is 6-foot-8 forward Nik Mains, the brother of UA walk-on Jordan Mains, and they also bring back wing Jay Green, the brother of ex-Wildcat star Josh Green.
NAU has seven new players on the roster including three Division I transfers. The most notable is guard Jalen Cone, who averaged 9.2 points per game at Virginia Tech last season.
“It’s a solid program,” Lloyd said. “Like a lot of people they are taking some transfers, and so I think they’re probably really excited about the direction they’re gonna go. The point guard, Cone ... he’s an aggressive player, and he’s gonna come in and he’s probably gonna have tons of freedom, and those guys can be dangerous to play against. And then you throw out a skilled big, like Nik Mains … and those guys present problems, their size and their skill. I’m glad we’re playing a team that has those things because those are the questions that we need to answer, to see what type of season we can have is, how do we play against guys like that.”
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Arizona is a 24.5-point favorite. The UA is 100-27 all-time against NAU, winning the last 34 meetings.
A casual coach, both internally and externally
It was just an exhibition, but Lloyd was decidedly calm on the sideline against Eastern New Mexico, often sitting down on the bench for extended periods of time. In other words, the complete opposite of Miller, who in addition to be constantly on his feet and moving would be losing his voice before the first TV timeout.
Will that be different now that the games count? Probably not, Lloyd said.
“I’ve been approaching it like that the last couple weeks, from the first scrimmage to the first exhibition game,” he said. “This is the first real game, I guess. I’m not approaching it any different. Try to make sure we’re organized, guys know the game plan, and make sure that we’re comfortable with our Plan As and our Plan Bs, and we’re gonna go out and we’re going to try to execute it. I’ve never been a guy that’s gotten too nervous about games or this or that. I think the game’s at 830 (pm) tomorrow? So for me, I’ve never found any benefit to get nervous. It’s at 830, so if I’m nervous why would I want to drive myself crazy for 36 hours? I’m excited, and we’ll be prepared. I love games on any given day. Games are a big reason why you do these jobs. So I’m excited to go out and see where our guys are at, and wherever we’re at we’ll attack what we need to go going forward.”
Lloyd said he doesn’t have any pregame rituals—“make my half-courter” was all he offered—and plans to spend most of game day relaxing and keeping his mind clear while also giving the game plan one last look.
As for his attire, Lloyd said he’ll be going casual, wearing a polo like he and his staff did in the exhibition. He’d prefer to wear a long-sleeved quarter-zip pullover but Arizona doesn’t have any from Nike in its gear.
“I feel like I’m going to be coaching naked because I’m going to be coaching in a polo tomorrow,” he said. “I prefer to have a long-sleeved deal, sometimes it gets cold down on the bench. If I had my druthers that’s what I’d do every time.”
Lloyd wore a suit as an assistant at Gonzaga (except for last season, when most schools opted for a less formal look without fans in the stands due to COVID) but not by choice.
“I’ve always wondered why we wore suits, but I didn’t want to be that guy standing out,” he said. “So now that it’s a little more acceptable ...”