The offseason always feels longer in Wildcat Nation, and this time it really was after Arizona was bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the first round by 15th-seeded Princeton.
It’s been 235 days since then—we know you’ve counted—but now comes the chance for the Wildcats to start anew. The 2023-24 season begins Monday night at McKale Center against Morgan State.
The third season of the Tommy Lloyd era features another overhauled roster, a preseason pick to win the final Pac-12 season and a No. 12 ranking in the initial Associated Press Top 25. And one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, including a trip to Duke later this week.
But first is one of six nonconference home games. Here’s what to watch for when the UA takes on the Bears:
How deep will the rotation go?
Since the preseason began, Lloyd has spoken of his team’s added depth and the desire to not have such a short bench as was the case in his first two seasons. If the two exhibition games are any indication, he intends to use that depth early and often in this game.
All 10 available scholarship players entered within the first 6:19 of the first exhibition, and 10 days later all 11 healthy Wildcats saw the court by midway through the first half.
As for this one? It depends first on whether wing Pelle Larsson is cleared to play after dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of both preseason games. If Larsson can go there will be 12 available, as sophomore center Dylan Anderson is set to redshirt this season.
Even if Lloyd is healthy, don’t expect him in the starting lineup for the opener. Lloyd is likely to go with the same five he used for the second exhibition against New Mexico Highlands, with a 3-guard lineup featuring Kylan Boswell, Jaden Bradley and Caleb Love and a frontcourt of Oumar Ballo and Keshad Johnson.
Freshman Motiejus Krivas should be the first big man off the bench, solidifying that spot with Anderson’s redshirt and Henri Veesaar dealing with an elbow injury. Fellow Lithuanian Paulius Murauskas will also be in the frontcourt, though Lloyd said his development is a bit delayed after beginning the summer at the 3 before getting shifted to the 4 due to injuries.
“It’s the classic caught in between two positions a little bit,” Lloyd said. “Once when he made that jump from the three to the four, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, you’re kind of learning a different way to play.”
If Larsson can’t go, KJ Lewis and Filip Borovicanin will be the first guards off the bench.
The offensive approach
Arizona took more 3-point shots than 2-pointers in the final exhibition, which irked Lloyd, though he acknowledged that may have been a result of the opponent packing the paint. Only twice in regular-season play during his tenure have the Wildcats done that.
With Azuolas Tubelis no longer the primary offensive weapon, this offense figures to be far more perimeter-oriented. But instead of just a lot of long shots, look for the Wildcats to drive to the rim far more often than a year ago. Love, the UNC transfer, was very aggressive going to the basket during the preseason and more than half his points came on layups and free throws.
“Our offense creates a lot of movement, a lot of space to maneuver throughout the floor, so it’s easy for me to just get downhill and just make the right play,” Love said.
Ballo remains a threat near the basket, and Johnson will get his points in the paint as well, but Lloyd thinks the 7-foot Krivas could end up being the top scorer from that group more often than not.
“I think he’s gonna have a tremendous year and I wouldn’t be surprised, he scores the ball so easy, that there might be some days he’s close to your leading scorer,” Lloyd said.
The defensive intensity
Arizona had a slew of steals in both exhibition games, with the larceny getting spread around the court. The 2022-23 Wildcats weren’t particularly handsy, collecting just 6.1 steals per game to rank sixth in the Pac-12.
“I think we have guys that have good instincts to make steals,” Lloyd said after the first exhibition. “We don’t talk a ton about hey, we got to get steals, we got to do this, we got to do that. I think they’re just a byproduct of our personnel and how we play. We want to apply ball pressure and we want to be opportunistic.”
The bigger goal will be getting as many opposing possessions to end without points. The UA allowed 71.1 points per game last year, the highest average since the 2017-18 squad (71.7) and third-most since the end of the Lute Olson era.
Morgan State is the lowest-rated team on Arizona’s schedule, according to KenPom.com, at No. 347 out of 362 Division I programs. The Bears were 15-16 last season, including a 93-68 loss to the Wildcats in Tucson just before Christmas, and this year are picked to finish fourth in the 8-team MEAC with two first-place votes.
Guard Kameron Hobbs and forward Will Thomas are second-team preseason all-MEAC selections, each averaging a little more than 8 points per game last season.
Morgan State last beat a power-conference team in 2009 when it won at Arkansas. That Bears team won 27 games and was a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament.