Seven months later, Azuolas Tubelis is still unsure what to make of his disappointing performance at the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
“Personally, I don’t know what happened.”
“Maybe I was surprised,” he said, mulling over the increased physicality he faced against TCU and Houston. “Maybe I didn’t take it serious.”
March Madness, he learned, is a different beast mentally than anything he’s faced before.
Whatever the culprit behind Tubelis’ March malaise, he doesn’t want to feel that way again.
“I know I wasn’t good at all.”
Whether Tubelis can learn from the growing pains of his first NCAA Tournament experience and emerge as a tougher, more physical player will go a long way in determining whether this Arizona Wildcats team can advance further than last year’s squad.
Tubelis, now a junior, knows more is expected of him in the absence of Christian Koloko, Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry. The increased demand won’t come in the form of points — Tubelis knows Arizona has plenty scorers — but in his ability to rebound and defend the interior.
Tubelis made it a focus this offseason to his improve his rebounding.
After averaging 6.2 boards as a sophomore, he’s set a goal to bring in eight to nine rebounds per game this season.
“Now C-Lo is gone and DT is gone and they went on the board a lot,” said Tubelis. “Now I need to do more work because they’re not here.”
Tubelis also spent the summer months getting his 6-foot-11, 245-pound frame into better condition. After hurting his left wrist lifting weights, he spent the late spring and early summer resting Instead of competing for Lithuania at the U20 FIBA European Basketball Championships.
Tubelis used the rest and recovery period as a springboard into a productive offseason.
The unexpected additional time in Tucson also gave him a longer chance to train with Arizona players and staff. Tubelis and Oumar Ballo even participated in some boxing classes.
“We didn’t fight against each other”, said Tubelis, chuckling. “No sparing or that stuff. Just some footwork, conditioning stuff. It was really exhausting but it was fun.”
Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd has liked the progress he’s seen from Tubelis this offseason. But until Tubelis implements what he’s learned into game settings, it’s too early to determine what kind of progress he’s made.
“Now the big trick is, you start playing five-on-five basketball, can he pinpoint the opportunities to utilize those things he’s been working on in live basketball?” said Lloyd. “That’s always the hard thing. That’s one of the hardest things for player development, you work on things individually or in small group settings, how do you apply that in five-on-five?”
The hope is that the work Tubelis puts in now will pay off when he faces tough competition late in the season.
Leading up to last year’s NCAA Tournament, there was no indication that Tubelis’ performance would drop off just because he was playing on a bigger stage.
Upon returning from an ankle injury he suffered at Stanford in January, Tubelis was arguably Arizona’s most consistent player in Pac-12 play. He scored double figures in 10 of Arizona’s last 12 regular season games and posted a 20-point, 11-rebound double-double in the Wildcats’ Pac-12 Tournament semifinal win over Colorado.
Yet Tubelis appeared shell shocked facing TCU and Houston. In those two games, he scored a total of seven points on 2-15 shooting and committed seven turnovers.
“Sometimes when you play that four-spot like he does, there’s some tough matchups out there,” said Lloyd. We played against some players at TCU and Houston, those Big 12-type teams, maybe the guy you’re playing against isn’t a pro, but he’s physical, and he’s hard to play against.”
“I think that’s an area where Zu has to make some gains. It’s something we definitely have attacked at. It’s a learning opportunity. I’m hopeful he can show that. I’m sure the results won’t be perfect.”
Tubelis’ battle isn’t one he’ll fight alone. The loss to Houston exposed the lack of physicality Arizona played with at times last season, a mistake Lloyd is adamant to correct.
Lloyd couldn’t pinpoint the ways Arizona needs to grow tougher, rather calling it a “look and feel” process.
“There’s nothing that bums me out more than rolling out to play and just being physically outmatched,” said Lloyd, who in his last game as a Gonzaga assistant saw the Bulldogs get pummeled by Baylor in the 2021 national title clash.
“It could be in how you take care of the ball, it could be in how you block out on the glass, it could be how fight through fatigue,” said Lloyd. “There’s so many areas. You’re just constantly trying to build your team up and make sure that at least you’re checking that box to be competitive in that aspect. Because that literally the price of entry.”