As much as college basketball coaches love having games to show what their teams can do, having practice time during the regular season is even more valuable. Arizona picked up some unplanned extra practice slots after its scheduled Pac-12 opener against Washington was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols within the UW program.
The Los Angeles Times is reporting that seven players or coaches had tested positive for COVID.
The Wildcats’ next game is now Sunday at Oregon State, which opens Pac-12 play Thursday night at Cal. When Arizona tips off inside Gill Coliseum at 2 p.m. MT it will have been more than a week since its last game, with this being just the second matchup in nearly two weeks after playing five games in the first 13 days of the season.
What might the UA work on during this unexpected time off? Probably more of the same, at least based on how coach Tommy Lloyd talked on Wednesday.
“The guys are great, and they seem to be on board with everything and they’re doing a really good job taking coaching,” he said. “When we tell them something is important, or we got to work on this, they seem to understand that and make it a priority. I’ve been most proud of that.
While Arizona going from unranked and mostly unnoticed to No. 11 in the country has caught a lot of people around the country by surprise, Lloyd saw this coming based on how his team looked during the spring and summer. Asked when he saw the players first get “bought in” to his system, he said that’s a relative term that is more dependent on what’s going on at the time.
“You could have a possession or two that looks like they’re all bought in, you could have five possessions where it looks like two guys aren’t bought it,” he said. “For me that’s an ongoing thing and just playing good team basketball and understanding how we want to be effective and areas of the game we want to prioritize. All in all, I do feel really good about where the guys are, where they’re at with how we want to play.”
Lloyd said he’s been most pleased with the effort his team has shown, going so far as to say that aspect has been better than the overall play itself.
“I would put our effort probably a little bit ahead of our execution, which is good,” he said. “You can execute great but if you have low effort you’re gonna have poor results. To me, just how consistently high effort we’ve been able to play with has been something you strive for, but it’s been a real positive and a good surprise.”
Arizona’s strong has massively improved its national championship odds. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Wildcats are +3500, tied for 17th-best.
Extra starters on the bench
Arizona has used the same starting lineup in all six games so far, and nothing indicates that’s going to change anytime soon. Yet after the UA bench contributed 51 points in the 105-59 win over Sacramento State last weekend, it’s hard not to agree with Lloyd’s take that he has more than five starters.
“I don’t look at it as five starters, or first string, second string,” he said. “We got nine guys that are that are really contributing on a consistent basis.”
Guards Justin Kier and Pelle Larsson, forward Kim Aiken Jr. and center Oumar Ballo are averaging 65 minutes per game, during which they are producing 25.5 points, 14.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Ballo, Kier and Larsson are a combined 37 of 45 (82.2 percent) from the foul line and Aiken is the UA’s best 3-point shooter by average at 58.3 percent (7 of 12).
“I think it’s important to value all and I try to do the best I can, talking with them, meeting with them, showing them how much I appreciate them and keep telling them ways that they keep trying to help us,” Lloyd said. “They’ve been great. I’m as comfortable with those guys as I am with the guys in the starting five. We’re really fortunate to have good depth, and with the crazy thing about college basketball, these seasons are long and you can be deep one day and you’re here two ankle sprains away from being thing. So you just got to kind of take it day by day.”
Three of Arizona’s four top reserves were starters at their previous schools, with Aiken starting 66 games in three seasons at Eastern Washington.
“I don’t mind coming off the bench because it’s something I have to do ... to learn if I want to play at the next level,” Aiken said. “It’s something everyone has to do. There’s not always going to be that one KD guy that just comes in and automatically starts because he’s so talented. So I said coming off the bench is no problem. Coming into practice every day, trying to make guys better, like (Azuolas Tubelis), just trying to show my best effort every day so he can get better. It is definitely no problem for me. I just want to win and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Where are the fans?
Arizona has yet to have a sellout in four games at McKale, and it hasn’t come close. The announced crowd of 12,421 for the season opener against NAU was the largest of the season but that’s more than 2,000 less than capacity (14,545).
The UA led the Pac-12 in 2019-20, the last year with fans, at 13,654 per game, and in 2017-18 averaged 14,434 to rank 18th nationally.
“We got a great fan base, but to be honest with you, I haven’t felt it,” Lloyd said when asked about the atmosphere at home games. “These games don’t feel any crazier to me. I look up to the stands and there’s a lot of empty seats, and it just seems to me everybody’s got an excuse why there are people not at the game. I get COVID is a legit excuse, I get that. But I’m excited to feel when McKale was like when I played here last as a road team (with Gonzaga in 2019). That’s what I remember McKale as. We got to earn that, and obviously people are waiting to see what we’re doing. And we’ve got to earn the fan support. That’s the way I’m approaching it. We’re not going to beg for it. We’re going to go out and put the best product we can out there and we’re going to play our hearts out and then if they choose to come watch us, we’ll be excited.”
Arizona’s next home game is Wednesday, against a Wyoming team that is 6-0 and very likely to be 8-0 when they get to McKale Center. It’s other December home games are Dec. 15 vs. Northern Colorado and Dec. 18 vs. Cal Baptist, neither of which are exactly big draws.
It may not be until the UA’s new Pac-12 home opener, Jan. 13 vs. Colorado, that we see McKale come close to having all its seats filled.