Tommy Lloyd seems like a nice guy.
A longtime Gonzaga assistant before taking over as the head man at Arizona, he arrived with a solid enough resume but no experience as a head coach.
Offering a good many “you knows” and “umms” along with some tears in his introductory press conference, Lloyd presented a bit of an “aww shucks” vibe that was a stark contrast to the often measured and serious Sean Miller.
Because of that, along with no track record to fall back on, there were questions about what kind of fire he would bring to the job.
Not that he wouldn’t try or give it his best, but would he have the intensity necessary to succeed at a place like Arizona where, despite what has happened recently, has very high expectations for its men’s basketball program.
Getting off to a fast start certainly helped alleviate some of the concerns. Lloyd is getting plenty out of the roster, and now has the team ranked third in the country. The Wildcats have the look of a team that can reach the Final Four and win a national championship, which even the most optimistic of fans could not have predicted.
Lloyd’s system is a perfect fit for the roster he inherited, and the players he brought in to supplement have added plenty.
The Cats have not faced much adversity, losing just once, though lately Lloyd has begun to show just what kind of coach he is.
While not necessarily demonstrative on the sideline or in press conferences—many were upset he didn’t go off on the refs in Tennessee—he is similar to Miller in being very calculated with what he says.
Combine his on-court style with that calm-yet-calculated demeanor and you get something that resembles Lute Olson.
Lloyd’s comments after the win over Utah, which Kerr Kriisa surprisingly missed, were a great example. Noting that the sophomore got hurt during the pregame meal while “horsing around,” the coach knocked his point guard and team down a peg or two by revealing as much as he did.
While Lloyd had to provide some answer as to why Kriisa was held out and not on the bench, he could have avoided blaming his player or team. But he did not.
Instead he called them out, and that he did so after a win made his words all the more authoritative. That wasn’t all he said, nor the only message he tried to deliver to his team via the media.
At 14-1 overall and 4-0 in the Pac-12, the Wildcats are in excellent shape. It’s just that, Lloyd would rather his players not know that.
“As Nick Saban would say, rat poison,” Lloyd said. “It’s rat poison. This team is sitting around, everybody’s telling them how good they are. They got to understand what makes them good.
“What makes them good is when they’re edgy, they got a chip on their shoulder, they play incredibly hard, the attention to detail, they take care of the ball, and I feel like we’ve just slipped a little bit in those areas and we got to fight to get them back.”
The coach made sure to add that his team was “not there yet” and made it seem like his team was lucky to have its record, noting that “we’ve just happened to stack up some wins.”
Just happened to stack up wins, as if they are lucky to have the record they do. Right.
“We haven’t had a lot of experience having success and going on, stacking up these wins,” he said. “So we got to be mindful of that and understand that we’re just at the start of our journey. I got to be mindful of that to make sure that we’re doing the right things moving forward to build a long, standing culture that can handle ups and downs and in consistently win. That’s the goal.
“Having a great culture is tough. And winning and being consistently winning and playing at a championship level is tough. And we’re not there yet.”
The truth is Arizona is really good. Again, championship-level good. We know it, Lloyd knows it and his players know it.
The challenge for Lloyd is to make sure his team keeps doing the things that make it good and work on getting even better. Arizona’s players would not be the first to buy into their own hype, and as many have professional aspirations there is plenty of opportunity for things to go sideways.
The best coaches can manage all of that, and with every game and press conference Lloyd is showing his ability to do so.
Doubts that he was the right choice to lead the program have all but faded away into the ether.
For now, at least.
Despite Arizona’s impressive record and ranking, championships are not won in non-conference play (just ask Arizona State) or in early January. Despite the fact that no one really expected the Wildcats to be a top-10 team, that they are means a quick tournament exit will render this season a disappointment.
It’s kind of funny, actually. Arizona is one of the few places where a first-year coach could overachieve with its roster and, if they don’t win at least a couple of NCAA Tournament games, will have the season be viewed negatively.
That’s the pressure that comes with the job, and it’s something Lloyd signed up for. He knew it during that initial press conference, the one that may have inspired some doubt, and the last few months have shown he actually enjoys it.
It's nice to see.