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Offense evolving as Arizona men’s basketball heads into ‘All-Star break’

The smaller lineup could end up producing big returns

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-offense-shooting-adjustments-small-lineup-pac12-2023-tommy-lloyd Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona only has one game this week, hosting ASU on Saturday for the home finale, after seven consecutive weeks playing on Thursday night and then Saturday afternoon/evening, often with a bus drive or flight in between those games.

“This is our All-Star break,” said UA coach Tommy Lloyd after the 78-68 win over Colorado. “We need a break. We need a few extra days off this week to kind of refresh physically, mentally. We need a few days of practices to work on Arizona, clean some stuff up, and we need to kind of tighten things up for the stretch run.”

Lloyd said he himself also needs a few days off from the grind, though the first part of that included him attending the NBA All-Star Game Sunday in Salt Lake City to watch ex-Wildcat Lauri Markkanen and one of his former Gonzaga players, Domantas Sabonis. He also hopes to get in some time on his home pickleball court—“I hand out ass whoopings for free,” he told reporters as he exited the post-Colorado press conference—but there will still be plenty of time for him to get into the lab and draw up some game plans for ASU, as well as the huge season-ending series at the Los Angeles schools.

After that is the Pac-12 Tournament, where Arizona (24-4, 13-4) will most likely be the No. 2 seed, then the NCAA tourney (also with a probable No. 2 seed, based on both the NCAA’s early projection and those on

Don’t expect the UA to do too much tinkering, but if there is one place where it can stand to be more consistent is with its offensive balance. A sneak peak at what that might look like has been on display for parts of the last three games, when due to a combination of fatigue and Azuolas Tubelis’ foul trouble, the Wildcats have gone super small a fair amount.

“It’s not part of the plan, Zu sitting,” Lloyd said. “I’m always gonna look at it as a blessing in disguise, and that’s how you have to attack it and we need to be. We got to diversify our minds a little bit.”

Arizona went without a big man twice at Stanford, resulting in a 13-0 run late in the first half that gave the Wildcats their biggest lead at nine, and against Colorado the Wildcats used it for a 3:23 stretch in which all eight points they scored were in the paint or at the line. Seven straight in the middle of that Stanford run were also inside, off layups or short jumpers, the product of a newly discovered willingness for the UA’s guards and wings to drive to the basket.

The move to a smaller lineup more often began when Lloyd cut the rotation to seven, as the absence of Henri Veesaar and Dylan Anderson from the mix made it more common for only one big.

“I think that playing small with four guards out there is good for us and, and playing the five guards together for a stretch is going to be good for us too,” Lloyd said.

So far it’s produced good results, mostly because players who hadn’t previously been going inside have. Pelle Larsson had really been the only non-forward to previously show a drive to … drive, though he still averages only 3.6 2-point attempts per game. He’s taken 17 2-point shots the past three contests, just two against Colorado, though he made up for it by getting to the foul line for 10 free throws.

Larsson’s 117 free throw attempts are third on the team behind Oumar Ballo (172) and Tubelis (136). He’s shooting 86.3 percent from the line for the season, making 35 in a row at one point, and leads the Pac-12 at 91.8 percent in conference games.

“He’s doing a great job,” Lloyd said of Larsson, who since moving to the bench is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 52.4 percent. “I think he picked up eight fouls (against Colorado). For a wing to pick up eight fouls in a game is pretty significant. Because not only is he getting free throws, it’s get us closer to the bonus.”

Arizona’s other guards aren’t drawing fouls with their aggression, but some are finishing more when shooting from inside the arc of late. Particularly Cedric Henderson Jr. and Kylan Boswell, who are a combined 19 of 26 on 2s the past three games.

“I think the Stanford loss really showed us that when our bigs aren’t in, or even when they are, we still need to drive to the rim,” said Henderson, who had 15 against Colorado and has been in double figures in five of 10 games since moving into the starting lineup. “We can’t just rely on trying to throw the ball over the top or trying to get the ball to the post. We have to figure out ways to help them out.”

The 88-62 win over Utah, though it didn’t feature any super small lineups, did see Henderson and Boswell take advantage of the Utes sagging on the post to hit a bunch of mid-range jumpers.

Ballo and Tubelis will continue to be the focal point of Arizona’s offense, and the 3-point shot will still play a big role since the Wildcats are third in the Pac-12, 34th nationally and the duo of Kerr Kriisa (71) and Courtney Ramey (68) are first and second in 3s in the league. But the less the Wildcats are dependent on either of those areas, since both have shown to have off nights, the more well-rounded they’ll be for the postseason and it’ll be much harder for opponents to game plan.