A great start is not only enjoyable, but brings with it room for error and experimentation.
Not long ago, when Arizona was in Tempe playing the Sun Devils, the Wildcats followed an excellent first half by beginning the second looking like a team that was introduced to the sport of basketball that very day.
Turnover after turnover, missed shot after missed shot, it wasn’t long before 17-point lead was whittled down to two.
Of note during that run, however, was that Tommy Lloyd did not call a timeout to calm his team or, as would have been justified, tear into them. No, he let his guys play through it and ultimately they righted the ship and went on to win.
After the game Lloyd talked about trusting his team, adding that sometimes they need to figure things out on their own. Guard Courtney Ramey appreciated that mentality, saying Lloyd’s trust in them provides confidence.
That’s all well and good, when you win. But when you lose or when you have been struggling like Arizona has for the better part of a month, the leash is likely to shorten. Unfortunately it has been revealed that the act of calling a timeout does not guarantee an end to the opponent’s run, nor is it sure to inspire better play from the Wildcats.
Yes, they’re still ranked 11th and are destined to be an NCAA Tournament team, but their projected seed is starting to fall. And with three conference losses the idea of winning a second straight Pac-12 crown is beginning to fade away.
At the same time, this is still the team that rose to the fifth spot in the nation and boasts arguably the best frontcourt in the country. The Wildcats are still 20th in KenPom and 18th in ESPN’s BPI. Their five Quad 1 wins are the third-most in the country.
Adding more context, there has been no truly dominant team in the NCAA and just last Saturday a whopping 11 ranked teams lost, with nine of them (including Arizona) doing so on the road. So Arizona is not alone in looking not great at times, and despite their recent slump the Wildcats are still in pretty good shape.
That is, if the recent play is actually a slump rather than an indication that a roster that lost a lot of talent from last season is coming back to earth as opponents figure them out.
Indeed, the Wildcats appear to be at an inflection point with the Los Angeles schools coming to town. Games against the Trojans and Bruins present opportunity to get back on track, but they also carry the very real risk of being swept.
At the McKale Center.
Win both and yeah, all is good again. Win one of the two, ok (especially if it’s Saturday against UCLA). Lose both and yikes.
This brings us back to Lloyd and his faith in the team. Some changes in the lineup, at least with who gets minutes off the bench, indicates it has wavered in at least some of the players. That’s natural, especially with such a young team that is trying to find its best lineups and rotations.
It’s not something Lloyd had to do much of last season, when he guided a talented roster to heights few expected. The coach seemed to press all the right buttons en route to a conference title, conference tournament title and a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.
Now for the first time since he was hired by Arizona, Lloyd is dealing with the kind of pressure that comes with a stretch of poor play.
Are the Cats underperforming? Their record and ranking would say no, but anyone who has watched them over the last month knows there has been a substantial drop off in play, at times it being as ugly as the last court they played on.
Big picture, it’s clear Lloyd is a victim of his own success, both last season and early in this one. Losing three starters to the NBA Draft provided an easy excuse, for lack of a better word, for taking a step back. Arizona should have again been good, of course, but nobody was truly expecting great.
Then the season started, and great was back on the table. Now that it’s on the precipice of being taken away, it is up to the coach to find the right recipe for this year’s team. The team’s great start cannot be taken away, nor should it be discounted.
In fact, it should be celebrated because it’s the only thing keeping the Wildcats’ goals afloat while they and their coach figure out how to right the ship.