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Courtney Ramey fuels Arizona’s revamped defensive identity

arizona-wildcats-improved-defense-courtney-ramey-impact-pac12-UCLA-USC-Texas-big12-2023 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When Tommy Lloyd thinks about the factors that have enabled Arizona’s smooth transition between years one and two of his tenure, he circles back to when Dalen Terry kept his name in the NBA Draft last May, such briefly left the program with a gaping hole in the backcourt.

Over the next few weeks, Lloyd worked around-the-clock to find someone who could replace Terry’s defense and energy, if not his tremendous size.

“We were kind of stuck in a bind recruiting-wise, and things weren’t coming easy,” Lloyd said.

Better known for recruiting Central Europe than central America, Lloyd nevertheless turned to the Midwest to land Courtney Ramey, a St. Louis, Missouri talent that had been in the NCAA transfer portal.

A 4-year player at Texas, Ramey would provide the Wildcats background an even-keeled presence with the capability to score in waves. Just as importantly, Ramey brought a defensive-minded attitude molded by multiple Longhorns coaching staffs.

This past week, Ramey’s offense and defense were on full display. He scored 27 total points in wins over USC and UCLA while holding the Trojans’ Boogie Ellis to 2-of-11 shooting and the Bruins’ Tyger Campbell to 5 of 18.

Campbell’s 13 missed field goals were the most in his career.

“They were pretty aggressive sometimes on the ball screens and they were changing up a couple things,” said Campbell, who like Ramey is a 23-year old Midwest transplant.

Ramey likened the UCLA victory to a Big 12 contest where games are physical and “you have to be great down the stretch” to win.

“I want to show that I can play both sides of the ball,” said Ramey. “It was kind of like my niche at Texas, as an on-ball defender.”

It didn’t start out that way for Ramey in college.

A former Missouri state payer of the year at Webster Groves High School, Ramey arrived at Texas as a highly-regarded scorer. His freshman year with the Longhorns he led the team in 3-point shooting.

Heading into Ramey’s sophomore season in Austin, UT head coach Shaka Smart brought in assistant Luke Yaklich (now the head coach at the University of Illinois at Chicago), who challenged Ramey to be a two-way player.

“It was something that was new for me,” Ramey said earlier this season. “Ever since then, I just wanted to show that I can be great on both sides of the ball. I think that's something that can help me stand out as I continue to play.”

Under Smart, Ramey was trained under a switch defense that prioritized x-outs to limit mismatches. When Smart left to Marquette and Chris Beard took over as Texas’ coach, the Longhorns employed defensive slides to force the action baseline and keep things out of the middle of the court.

Ramey describes Lloyd’s defense as fighting through screens and keeping physical.

Unlearning what he did at Texas and picking up Lloyd’s defense took time.

“He’s made huge progress,” said Lloyd. “He and I are on the same page now. And it was nothing intentional. He just had different habits. It takes time to kind of break down some of those habits, and get on the same page with what we want to do. But he was tremendous. He took on to all-conference type point guards this weekend and did an exceptional job on both of them.”

By defending opposing guards at a high level, Ramey has the potential to help turn Arizona’s perimeter defense from a liability to an asset.

In allowing UCLA to 52 points Saturday, the Wildcats tapped into a defensive MO of tight, aggressive coverage, the kind that Terry was known for. To sustain that defensive energy game-in game-out will take tremendous effort. Then again, that’s what Ramey was brought in for.

“The games are physical and (UCLA) is a physical team, I think we matched them, but it’s something we can get better at,” said Ramey.