SACRAMENTO, Calif.—This time a year ago, Arizona entered the NCAA Tournament with a roster that included just nine minutes of tourney experience and a head coach who had been to plenty of tourneys but never as the guy in charge.
What a difference a year makes.
When the Wildcats (29-6) open NCAA play in the first round Thursday afternoon against Princeton (21-8) they’ll be putting on the court a starting five that features four players with a combined 14 games of tourney experience at three different schools plus more off the bench. And Tommy Lloyd, whose 61 wins are the most in NCAA history for a coach in his first two seasons, feels like a grizzled vet instead of a wet-behind-the-ears newbie.
“I think this time around in the tournament I feel much more comfortable,” Lloyd said Wednesday. “I think our team’s comfortable. I think we’re obviously excited to be there, but I know we’re not satisfied. I think that’s a good formula.”
Here’s what to watch for when second-seeded Arizona takes on the 15th-seeded Tigers at Golden 1 Center:
Oumar Ballo revealed after the Pac-12 title game win over UCLA that he was playing with a broken hand. He had 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 26 minutes despite two fingers on his left hand held together with a splint.
During Wednesday’s open practice those fingers were still taped together, but without a splint, while there was some padding under the tape on his left hand. It didn’t seem to affect him during that workout, and he said there won’t be an issue against Princeton.
“It’s a lot better,” Ballo said. “I’ll just play the way I was playing last game.”
Said Lloyd: “We’re looking for Oumar to have his usual impact that he’s been having on all these games.”
As for Kerr Kriisa, who injured his right shoulder in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, was swishing threes during practice and looks as close to 100 percent as he can be.
Defending a ‘point center’
Princeton is the 121st-tallest team in Division I, per KenPom.com, averaging 77.4 inches per player, but no one in the Tigers’ rotation is bigger than 6-foot-9 senior Keeshawn Kellman.
That should give Arizona a huge size advantage, with 7-foot Ballo and 6-foot-11 Azuolas Tubelis towering over Princeton’s frontcourt.
“Size, like Ballo and Tubelis, we haven’t seen anything like that,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said “Those guys are enormous and they’re fast. This is going to be new for us in some ways. But at the end of the day they still have to guard us.”
The guys Arizona will need to pay closest attention to is, senior Tosan Evbuomvwan, a 6-foot-8 “point center” according to Henderson, leads Princeton in scoring (15 points per game) and assists (4.8) and is the second-leading rebounder (6.2).
Lloyd compares Evbuomvwan to USC’s Drew Peterson and UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. in terms of his ability to handle the ball.
“He’s definitely got our full attention,” Lloyd said. “We’re going to come out and hopefully do the best job we can neutralizing his impact on the game.”
Tubelis had one of the worst games of his collegiate career the last time Arizona played in the NCAA Tournament, missing all eight shots in the Sweet 16 loss to Houston. That was after scoring only five points in the second-round overtime win against TCU and made for seven single-digit performances in his final 10 games.
“Obviously he didn’t play great in the tournament last year,” Lloyd said. “I think that happens sometimes. I mean, I think players ebb and flow. Unfortunately his ebb kind of came at an unfortimate time for him and our team. I think he’s flowing now.”
Tubelis was Pac-12 tourney MVP after averaging 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds. He shot 55 percent, though was 5 of 17 in the final, but made up for it by hitting 9 of 11 free throws.
Twelve shy of becoming the 15th player in school history with 1,500 points, Tubelis also sits eighth in single-season school history with 672 points as well as fourth in field goals (265) and ninth in rebounds (315).
“I’m more focused and locked in,” Tubelis said. “I kind of figured out what it means for the program, what is March Madness and how it works.”
Princeton takes more than 40 percent of its shots from 3-point range, likely a byproduct of their lack of overall size and an Ivy League that’s not known for physical interior play. Four Tigers have made 30 or more triples, with Ryan Langborg the most frequent drainer with 58 and Matt Allocco the most accurate (40.7 percent).
Arizona is a top-100 team in defending the 3, but there have been 12 games where opponents have hit 10 or more 3s and eight in which the foe made at least 40 percent from outside.
But so, too, have the Wildcats proven to be proficient from deep, and far more (and better) than you may have realized.
The UA ranks 14th in Division I in 3-point shooting, at 38.2 percent, and are almost assured of breaking the single-season school record for 3s on Thursday. The Wildcats have made 292, three behind the record of 295 set by the 2010-11 team that reached the Elite Eight.
No one on that 2010-11 squad made more than 50, while the current team has two in the top 10 in single-season history. Courtney Ramey (83) is tied for eighth and Kriisa (82) is 10th, joining Khalid Reeves (85) and Damon Stoudamire (93) in 1993-94 as the only UA teammates with 80 apiece.
Arizona is playing NCAA games in Sacramento for the first time since 1998, when as the defending national champ and No. 1 seed in the West they blew out Nicholls State and Illinois State en route to the Elite Eight.
Those games were played at the old Arco Arena, which was demolished last year. The Golden 1 Center is hosting the NCAA tourney for the second time, the other coming in 2017 when Oregon played there the first weekend on its way to the Final Four in Phoenix that also included Gonzaga.
Lloyd, with the Bulldogs, played in Sacramento once during his time as an assistant, losing to Indiana in the first round in 2007. But one of his best players with Gonzaga, Domas Sabonis, plays for the Sacramento Kings and Lloyd went to Salt Lake City last month to watch him (and ex-UA star Lauri Markkanen) in the NBA All-Star Game.
Princeton also has connections to California’s capital city in the form of legendary Tigers coach Pete Carril, who after 29 seasons there joined the Kings as an assistant and was with the franchise off and on from 1996-2011.