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Despite losses, nonconference schedule proved Arizona men’s basketball has what it takes

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-nonconference-schedule-losses-purdue-fau-tommy-lloyd-commentary Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona’s loss to FAU ended its ... non-conference slate.

It left the Wildcats with a 9-2 record, second in NET and third in KenPom. Losers of two of their last three, they are third in ESPN’s BPI and the projected top overall seed in the West for the 2024 NCAA Tournament in most early brackets.

Yet as is the case for most every loss the Wildcats suffer, their 96-95 2OT defeat at the hands of the 14th-ranked team in the nation, one that went to last year’s Final Four and returned the bulk of the roster, to many they look more like a team that will get bounced in the dance’s first weekend than get to the final weekend in Glendale.

What’s funny about that is it would have been unreasonable to expect Arizona to go undefeated this season. Further, the idea that they would finish their nonconference games without a loss was also a bit out there, given how difficult it was set up to be.

Yes, Arizona lost to FAU in a game it probably should have won. The Cats also fell to Purdue in a game they probably had no business winning. However, the team also beat Duke, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Alabama, some close and some less so.

“That’s why we set up this schedule,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said after the loss to FAU. “I didn’t set up this schedule to go undefeated. If our guys found a way to win all the games, I would have been really proud of them, but I am super proud of them.”

Lloyd’s team proved it could beat talented opponents on the road, at neutral sites and in Tucson. Given the opponents and time of year, isn’t that what you would want the team to have shown?

It’s true that running the table would have been nice, but doing so would have done nothing other than keep Arizona atop the rankings. They still would have had to keep up their pace for another few months and then into the tournament, which is where they will truly be judged.

With that in mind there are some who believe a team needs to suffer some losses prior to the NCAA Tournament anyway, as the pressure of being perfect is too much to handle.

So for them, wish granted.

For others, like say Lloyd and his team, the last week showed how far the team has come and just how much farther it needs to go.

While it’s probably not right to declare Arizona the best team in the country, it is absolutely true that the Wildcats are one of the best teams in the country.

Thinking of the two teams that have beaten Arizona, do you not see a world where if a rematch was played the Cats would come out on top? And if you have watched some of the other top teams around the nation, are there any you feel like Arizona can’t compete with and or beat?

The eye test says no and the numbers agree. That does not mean the Cats are destined to win the final season of Pac-12 play or make a deep NCAA Tournament run, but at this point when no banners are on the line, all you can hope for is reason to believe that this team will be the one to get the program back to the Final Four and that this is the roster that could raise another banner in the McKale Center.

Up next for Arizona is a league slate that at the outset does not appear to offer much in the way of challenges or “good wins.” There will be tough games, of course, but as of now there are no ranked teams to face off with, which means any loss will be a bad one and the tournament feel that Lloyd alluded to Saturday afternoon is not likely to truly be present.

After the loss to FAU Lloyd said how he wished the schedule was more like that in the NBA, where you can quickly get back on the floor after a tough loss.

“The losses hurt in college, especially when you’re a program like Arizona and you’re not used to losing,” he said. “We’re built for it and there’s no shame in losing to Purdue, there’s no shame in losing to Florida Atlantic.”

He’s not wrong.

Lloyd purposefully created a difficult schedule and throughout it all his team showed it had the talent, depth and fight to compete with and oftentimes beat some of the better teams in the country. That they lost a couple of times does not indicate they are a team without a chance, but instead a very good team with room to improve.

As the calendar flips to January and conference play begins, that’s exactly where you want to be. After all, there is plenty on the roster to work with and the season is far from over.

“Break comes at a good time and I can’t wait to get together with my staff and kind of figure out the next uptick for this team,” Lloyd said. “This team has a lot of growth in it and we’re going to try to tap into everything we can.”