It’s probably not a coincidence that Arizona has won every game, and is playing arguably its best basketball of the season, since Tommy Lloyd switched up the starting lineup and moved Cedric Henderson Jr. into the spot previously held by Pelle Larsson.
But just as impactful—and what may have a much greater effect on how the rest of the season goes—was Lloyd’s decision to shorten up the bench and go with a 7-man rotation.
So far, so very good. Fourth-ranked Arizona (21-3, 10-3 Pac-12) has won six straight in its current iteration, outscoring opponents by 16 points per game while putting up better overall shooting, rebound and assist numbers as well as significantly better defensive numbers than during its 4-3 start to conference play.
But is it sustainable? Can Arizona really expect to go deep in the postseason when only seven guys are seeing minutes outside of garbage time or, in the case of the 84-52 win over Oregon State last time out, an outcome that was decided before halftime?
“In a perfect world, I’d love everybody to play, and I’d love everybody to score double figures,” Lloyd said Tuesday. “Obviously we know we don’t live in a perfect world. So for me, it’s just about making decisions that I think are going to help us win the next ball game. I can’t ignore the fact that yeah, having players eight, nine and 10 good enough and ready to contribute helps your team. And so I got to help kind of nurture that and develop that a little bit. And then they got to hold up their end of the bargain and make sure that when they get those opportunities, they come in and they really help us and the level doesn’t drop off.”
The top candidates for an eighth rotation spot and beyond are three freshmen—centers Dylan Anderson and Henri Veesaar and wing Filip Borvicanin—and sophomore guard Adama Bal. They all got their first significant playing time in nearly a month against OSU, and all looked good, but it will take more than just a single performance against an overmatched opponent to solidify more playing time.
And while getting one or more of those guys onto the floor more may seem ideal, it may not be necessary as long as Arizona stays conditioned and healthy.
“Obviously depth is a good thing,” Lloyd said. “But I think at the end of the day, I mean, I think if you look at all these top teams in college basketball, the focus is always winning the next game, and what gives you the best chance to win. And that’s where your mindset is. If it’s playing six players, it’s playing six players. If it’s playing 10 it’s playing 10.
“That’s one of the things that makes college basketball hard, but it makes it so great, is that ... every game matters. And it impacts so many things, whether it’s being on the bubble, or being safely getting an at-large bid, then it impacts settles. Then do you want to compete for a conference championship?”
Arizona is back in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, like it was a year ago, and that was with an 8-man rotation. That probably would have been the case at this point for the 2022-23 squad, but Anderson and Veesaar showed growing pains once Pac-12 play resumed after Christmas and Bal has struggled to live up to the expectations that may have been inflated by his surprising play late last year in the Pac-12 tourney final against UCLA.
“I built this team for Adama to be in the top 8,” Lloyd said. “And he had a lot of opportunities and he just didn’t play great, didn’t play well early. And I’ve told him that, and I told him about next time, your next chances, you need to be ready. That was my message to him, and so I was really happy for him and proud of him that he played last game and he played pretty well.”
Bal had eight points, his most in Pac-12 play, and also logged two rebounds, an assist and a steal in 10 minutes.
“I know that scoring is part of my game but I need to do everything,” Bal said. “Defense, offensive rebounding, all the little things that add up. Coach is making a choice to make the team win. It is my job to ... make me part of this team. He doesn’t have to give me a chance I have to give me that chance.”
Assuming no one stands out enough to warrant regular playing time, and the 7-man rotation stays as is, the potential wear and tear might not be as big as you’d think.
Not including the OSU blowout, in which no one played more than 25 minutes, Arizona’s top seven are averaging a combined 8.2 more minutes than in the previous five games before the lineup. Henderson has seen the biggest uptick, not surprisingly, while Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo’s minutes have both gone down slightly and Larsson is basically playing the same amount since become a reserve.
In fact, the Wildcats’ rotation minutes of late are very similar to the ones Gonzaga’s main players averaged all season in 2020-21 when it rode a 7-man rotation to the NCAA title game. And that team, with Lloyd as an assistant, had 23 of 32 games decided by 15 or more points yet still stuck mostly to those seven.
Fatigue may set in at some point, such as during the Pac-12 tourney when Arizona could play three games in as many days. But the regular-season conference schedule is set up to mimic an NCAA weekend, with less than 48 hours between games, so the Wildcats will be used to that short turnaround.