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What we learned from Arizona men’s basketball’s nonconference slate

arizona-mens-basketball-what-we-learned-non-conference-tommy-lloyd-azuolas-tubelis Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Arizona men’s basketball posted a perfect record in nonconference play, earning victories against four AP Top 25 teams and winning the Maui Invitational. Here’s what we learned from their play.

The Wildcats have the nation’s best frontcourt duo

Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo present such an intimidating frontcourt to defend not just because of their size but because their strengths compliment one another so well. Tubelis can sprint the floor with ease, dish out passes from the high or mid post, and attack the hoop with aggression. He’s the full package as far as collegiate power forwards go, and his versatility is the biggest reason why Arizona has the No. 1 rated offense in the country.

For example, Tubelis accounts for approximately 32% of Arizona’s shots when he is on the floor, the seventh-most by a Power 5 player. Tubelis entered the season with high expectations and significant pressure coming off last year’s disappointing NCAA Tournament showing. To his credit, he stepped up in big moments in nonconference play, scoring 21 points against Indiana and 19 points against Tennessee.

It defies precedent for one team to have two big men performing at an All-American level, but how else would you classify the play of Ballo? The Malian 7-footer is second in the country in shooting percentage (74.2%), 11th in free throw attempts (7.3 per game) and ranks second in the Pac-12 in defensive rebound percentage (24.1%).

Ballo’s 30-point, 13-rebound double-double against Creighton in the Maui Invitational championship game illustrated his increased confidence, which carried over to big-time performances against the Hoosiers and Volunteers. Ballo’s consistency shouldn’t go unnoticed — in every game he has recorded at least 12 points and six rebounds.

Tommy Lloyd’s first year success was no fluke

When Tommy Lloyd guided Arizona to a 31-3 regular season record in his first year, earning National Coach of the Year honors, some critics (among them envious coaches, no doubt) pointed out that he won using Sean Miller’s players. Tubelis and Kerr Kriisa are the last notable holdovers from the Miller years, but Lloyd is still cruising along, winning primarily with guys he recruited out of the transfer portal or high school.

Arizona completed nonconference play with a 12-0 record (the one blemish so far coming at Utah in the Wildcats’ Pac-12 opener), earning AP Top 25 wins against San Diego State, Creighton, Indiana, and Tennessee. The Wildcats’ resume is supported by KenPom metrics, which say Lloyd’s team runs the best offense in the country, even better than a year ago when they had Benn Mathurin.

Lloyd off to the second-best start by any coach through 50 games in Division I history. Additionally, Arizona’s .900 winning percentage under Lloyd is the best in the nation since the start of the 2021-2022 season.

Arizona lacks an elite defense

Whereas Arizona has an optimal offensive system, the team is still searching for an answer on defense, which ranks in the 60s per KenPom. There isn’t one core metric where the Wildcats struggle at defensively, but there’s no areas where they’re great at. That’s a change from last year, when Arizona ranked second nationally at defending 2-point field goals.

Lloyd said after Arizona’s Thursday win over Morgan State that he’s traditionally more of a coach who likes to take away 3-pointers and then rely on length and rim protection to limit inside scoring. Last year the Wildcats had the personnel to do that by relying on Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko. Starting rotation replacements Pelle Larsson and Ballo don’t possess comparable defensive skillsets.

Arizona has time to find its defensive identity, which is clearly a top priority for the coaching staff entering conference play.

“I think there’s a lot of room for growth there,” Lloyd said. “Philosophically, we went one direction and then we kind of went another direction. Maybe we need to get in between those areas a little bit, and I just got to get comfortable pinpointing game by game what we got to do to be better.”

Bench is a work in progress

Arizona proved against Tennessee that it can win without any offensive input from the bench, but for the Wildcats to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament they’ll almost certainly need more contribution from role players.

Cedric Henderson is Arizona’s top option off the bench, and the Campbell transfer has delivered in spurts, scoring in double figures in six of 12 nonconference games. However, Henderson was mostly a non-factor in recent high-profile contests against Indiana and Tennessee.

One reason for that is Henderson is seeing the court less than he did in the early part of the season. He averaged 26 minutes per game in Maui, compared to 17 minutes against the Hoosiers and 13 minutes versus the Volunteers.

Adama Bal and Kylan Boswell are also competing for limited minutes in Arizona’s backcourt.

Bal made a splash against Indiana, knocking down a trio of 3-pointers, but barely glimpsed the court against Tennessee, then played sparingly against Montana State and Morgan State. Boswell saw plenty of action in Arizona’s last two nonconference tuneup games, filling in for Kriisa at point guard.

Bal and Boswell each possess value — Bal as a sharpshooter, Boswell as a floor general — and they’ll each be relied upon as the season deepens.

Meanwhile, Henri Veesaar gives Arizona consistent minutes in the paint. His confidence took off after an impressive showing against Indiana, which was followed by a breakout 15-point performance versus Texas A&M Corpus Christi. At 7-foot, Veesaar is a luxury to have off the bench, even if he’s still raw offensively.

What’s next

Arizona returns to action on Dec. 31, when it travels to Tempe to face rival ASU in a 12pm MST tilt on FOX.