PALM DESERT, Calif.—In the era of annual roster overhaul in college basketball, it’s very common for teams to struggle early in the season as they figure out their strengths and weaknesses.
And then there’s Arizona, which under Tommy Lloyd is 27-1 in nonconference games with two big ones already this season. The latest was Saturday’s 74-68 victory over No. 21 Michigan State in the Acrisure Invitational, the Wildcats’ 12th win in 16 tries against ranked opponents in Lloyd’s two-plus seasons.
Just don’t ask Lloyd to explain how the UA does so well in these big early games.
“These guys love playing in big games,” he said. “We’re a big game program, and so we’re not going to shy away from any of these moments. It’s been great. Maybe by the time I get the Quartzsite, on the drive back, I’ll have a better answer for you.”
Our recap can be found here. Below is what else Lloyd, game MVP Keshad Johnson and Caleb Love had to say afterward.
Lloyd on the victory: “A game like that you learn so much. We came out we started well, we were the aggressor. Kind of got flipped on us a little bit, but we hung with it and and just found a way to make winning plays down the stretch. It’s not coaching, I mean, it was these two guys here next to me. They did an incredible job down the end. I kind of ran out of ideas of plays to run. I always tell the guys at the end of these games, it’s amazing how often they come (down to) simple fundamentals, whether it’s a jump stop that leads to a back cut, or a shot fake that you get fouled on, or just stepping up and making a shot that the defense breaks down. But a lot of times it’s offensive rebounding. And I think that was evident today.”
On remaining calm after falling behind late: “What I know is, when you play a blueblood-type program that’s used to winning, the game ain’t ever over. And you’re gonna have to find a way to win that thing three or four times, and you’re gonna have to have a lead and next thing you know, you’re going to be down. I’ve been in too many of these games, you just got to stay the course. Our guys, I didn’t feel like we panicked at all. I think we got a lot of great things to learn from.”
On Johnson and Love’s composure down the stretch: “These dudes both played in national championships. They’ve been through the wars. I’m just lucky to coach them, and we’re thankful they’re on our side. They’ve come in and they both have had success in their previous places, but they’ve 100 percent bought into our culture, and they’re 100 percent contributing to our culture every single day.”
On Jaden Bradley hitting a big shot late and defending Tyson Walker: “People have different strengths and weaknesses. JB’s defense on No. 2 today was incredible. Some foul trouble sort of dictate how things happen, and I felt really comfortable with him on the court. When JB’s on the court, I’m not looking for him to score 20 points or anything like that. I I look for him to contribute to winning, and he does that every single time. We’re lucky to have him. I’m 100 percent comfortable with JB on the court in long stretches.”
On if teams will try to take foul Oumar Ballo in close games: “They can, for sure. Oumar has a lot of strengths, and maybe free throw shooting isn’t always one of them, but we trust him, and I’m always gonna give Oumar a chance at some of that. I trust O is going to make those free throws.”
On playing small (with Johnson at the 5) the final 5 minutes: “One of the main reasons I did kind of switch our lineup towards the end is they switched there. They were playing No. 25 at the five, so I was like let’s get Ke out there and give a little more versatility on defense. I didn’t want Oumar to be kind of hung out to dry in some of the ball screen defenses we were trying to do so. So that was the main reason.
“Another guy, Big Mo Krivas, I think he’s gonna really help us down the stretch in these games, and he can really shoot free throws. Maybe today was kind of the first time I saw him maybe a little bit timid. Listen, he’s been awesome, and these guys know how good he is for a freshman, but you’re going to hit some struggle. I felt a little more comfortable with with Ke down the stretch of the game, and he gets that offensive rebound putback and makes those free throws. He made me look good.”
On scoring a lot off backcuts in the first half: “We kind of picked some things up in scouting. We’re a team that’s ... we like cutting and moving, and we had a good little stretch there, I think we hit like three or four back cuts in a row and then I think they made some adjustments. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better. I can’t wait, we have nine days to get better now. And some of their ball screen coverages, we weren’t great at attacking. We always take pride in kind of being able to kind of figure those things out, and today, maybe when we go back and look at their ball screen defense versus our , ball screen offense, maybe they were a little bit better. So I think we can make a big jump in that area. The cuts worked early and then they kind of went away, because they maybe got a little stickier, but maybe that caused a few other things to open up, I don’t know, I’ll have to look.”
On his comfort level with Love wanting the ball late: “It’s really comfortable. I trust he’s going to be aggressive, he’s done it over the course of his career and he’s done it already at Arizona. And I only think he’s gonna get better. And we’ll get better at putting him in advantageous situations. Kylan (Boswell) and Jaden are growing there as well. Pelle (Larsson) is growing there well, playing good late in clocks.”
On Kylan Boswell’s play: “I thought Kylan had an awesome start to the game and then maybe he did a little bit extra. So I can’t wait to see how we can help him, when he starts to feel it like that, kind of simplify. Drill down on what he wants to do and be a little bit more efficient and I think he can have some really explosive games. Maybe they really took him out, I’ll have to go back and watch. He’ll learn how to handle that. He’s a young player playing in big-level games, and he’s a really good player. So I just look for him to continue to get better and better better.”
On defending Michigan State’s ball screens and defending the Spartans’ ball handlers: “These guys did a great job on their own kind of refusing some ball screens. We trust our size. What I really trust is these guards fighting their asses off on ball screens. These guys must have gotten screened 50 times tonight. I don’t think many of them were illegal. I might have been begging for a few illegal ones here, just trying to hope to get lucky. They were setting really hard screens and these guys were fighting over the top of them, and they were you know playing really aggressive downhill. I thought we had a lot of what we call rearview contests today, kind of contesting from in our in our recoveries. If you can do that with effort and we can trust our bigs down, that puts a lot of pressure on teams to make tough shots. And I thought we did that to both those guys today. And they’re both really good players. They’re going to make a few, but I think at the end of the day, we’ve maybe the difference was they didn’t make quite as many as they needed to.”
On the importance of the players knowing Arizona’s history: “We work on our culture everyday. I thought we had a great day spending some time on the culture yesterday. We had a nice little culture stuff today, that we got to keep the internal, and these guys do an awesome job with an old fuddy duddy like me preaching and talking about culture and different activities. I don’t know if they roll their eyes sometimes but they do a great job participating. And I want them to know what it means to play Arizona. So we spend a lot of time talking about the legacy that we’ve inherited, and what this program means to our community, and these guys put their heart and soul into it. I think they got the ability to dig a little bit deeper when they have to.”
On Acrisure Arena hosting its first college basketball game: “Awesome effort by our guys in an awesome environment, it was really cool. Playing here for the first time ... for the first kind of big-time college basketball game, I think the community really showed up. I can see this becoming a great neutral site, not only for Arizona but maybe other teams. I thought that we could be walking in here and there’s 1,000 fans. Michigan State obviously travels well, and it was a great environment.”
On if the team will take any time off before the next game Dec. 2 vs. Colgate: “By the time we get to Quartsite I’ll figure that out.”
Johnson on playing the 5: “This guy, he does a great job of throwing out all different types of scenarios out there, so I get little instances when I’m in there at the five. Our preparation is second to none, we just get it done. Anyway which way we got to do it.”
On not getting flustered: “The trust that we have in Tommy’s game plan, the trust that we had on one another, that’s really what leads to that win. We’re just well connected. The strength that we have, the bond that we have on and off the court, that’s all the result that shows with these wins that we get in these tough games. I know I could go out because my brother’s got my back and I got his.”
Love on Lloyd letting things play out rather than calling timeouts: “He knows what he’s doing. He trusts us out on the floor. You see a head coach not panicking, I mean, why would you panic. We know those situations, we practice those situations, day in and day out in practice, and so we’ll comfortable in those type of situations.”
On being able to stay composed after giving up a big lead: “It’s hard to win those games, so whatever you gotta do, it’s gotta get done. A lot of times you can’t script nothing that goes on in a game like this with two wonderful programs, especially two winning programs. I know they got a lot of stuff that they do to try to win, we just got to stick to whatever we got to do.”
On building a 34-19 lead: “That was an emphasis for us, to come out strong and kind of hit them in the mouth. That’s kind of our game plan every single game, anytime we come into a game we want to hit hit first. We’re going to take a few punches, we’re not gonna fall we. If we do fall we’re gonna get back up. It all comes down to execution and playing hard and toughness and so that’s what we did.”
On Michigan State taking away the back cuts: “During the course of a game, no team is going to let a team do the same thing over and over again, they’re gonna make adjustments. So as they adjust, we adjust. We were kind of the aggressor in the first half and they kind of made their adjustments and switch it up. So we had switch up our game plan a little bit, we had to go to what was working.”