While watching UConn and San Diego State play for the NCAA Tournament title Monday, two thoughts entered my head:
The first was that Arizona State hired the wrong Hurley.
The second, which is the one we’ll focus on here, was that neither of the teams were clearly better than Arizona was this past season. More over, the squads that were playing for the 2023 title certainly weren’t as good as some of the recent-memory Wildcat teams that fell short in the dance.
The NCAA Tournament is not necessarily about being the best team in basketball; just the best team on the floor at that time. And unfortunately for the Wildcats, they haven’t been the best team on the floor at that time enough in the month of March.
The failures of this last year’s team are well documented, with their inconsistent effort and guard play leading to their undoing after just 40 minutes of tournament hoops. That Princeton looked pretty good in advancing to the Sweet 16 likely didn’t do much to dull the pain.
At any rate, when the dust settles from every Arizona tournament loss the focus begins to turn to the following season. The goal of reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2001 remains, with it appearing to be both attainable and impossible all at once.
This is the way.
But what is the way forward?
Depending on what happens with Azuolas Tubelis, Tommy Lloyd may need to replace upwards of four starters from last year’s team. That provides plenty of opportunity to reshape the roster which, if Zu departs, may for the first time be filled entirely with players Lloyd and his staff recruited or brought in via transfer.
That puts a lot of pressure on the third-year coach who, for the first time in his tenure, may be feeling the weight of the job’s expectations.
There’s little doubt that Lloyd and his staff have a good idea of what the roster needs if it is to not only maintain its high level of play, but surpass it. There is plenty of talent available in the portal and still some intriguing high school prospects left on the board, which is likely why despite all the team figures to lose early projections still have the Cats as among the best in the country going into next season.
With that in mind, here’s what Arizona needs to figure out — or add — if it is to not only avoid taking a step back, but actually move forward.
Arizona essentially played seven guys down the stretch last season, and that’s not enough. But in terms of depth, the Cats don’t need it so much in case of injury or foul trouble but instead to help push players who may need a little extra motivation.
Multiple times throughout the season, and even after the final game, the team’s lack of effort was brought up as a problem. Could the fact that Arizona’s key players had little-to-no competition for minutes have played a role in that?
Improving the talent at spots 8, 9 and 10 is necessary, and it doesn’t necessarily have to come from outside of the program. But it wouldn’t hurt to bring in some options.
Arizona had two excellent bigs last year in Tubelis and Oumar Ballo. While both very good players, neither strike fear into the hearts of anyone driving into the lane.
To wit: Arizona amassed just one blocked shot against Princeton while the significantly smaller Tigers tallied six.
There were multiple times last season where you could tell the team missed Christian Koloko — perhaps as much or even more than it missed Benn Mathurin. Koloko was the type of player who could cover up for deficiencies on the perimeter as well as make things difficult for anyone who dared go near the basket.
Perhaps that guy is Henri Veesaar, but if not then Arizona must find a rim protector over the next few months.
Bucket getters and shot creators
Arizona’s offense was not an issue last season, except for when it was. The Cats finished sixth in all of college hoops in points per game, second in assists and were fifth in field goal percentage.
And yet, they scored a paltry 55 points in their lone NCAA Tournament game. That number was more than 26 points below their season average and represented their lowest score since the 48 they put up against USC on Feb 27, 2020.
Why did it happen? Well, the 3-point shot wasn’t falling, the Tigers swarmed Tubelis and Ballo (who was playing with a broken hand) and the Cats had no one else to pick up the slack.
If Arizona had someone — anyone — who could reliably get good looks at the basket off the dribble, set teammates up with drives to the hoop or be somewhat consistent from the outside they would have won that and other games this season.
Now, this is arguably the toughest thing to find and the competition for such players is intense. Maybe players who can fill these roles are already on the roster, such as Kylan Boswell or possibly Pelle Larsson.
But if Arizona must look outward, if a player who can score from all three levels is unattainable it would be wise to find at least one player who excels at getting to the basket and another who can make close to 40 percent of their threes.
Is it fair to say last year’s team was soft? More often than not when they got punched in the mouth, so to speak, they responded by folding.
As my Wildcat Radio 2.0 co-host Brett likes to say, Arizona needs fewer guys who like to win and more who absolutely hate to lose. More over, they need a resilient mindset, one that pushes them through difficult times and allows them to step up in tough situations.
Is this something Lloyd can instill? At least in part, but much of it comes from the players themselves. That’s why it’s incumbent upon Lloyd to bring those types of guys in.
In theory Arizona is an attractive destination for talent. The Wildcats play an exciting style of offense that allows one to put up numbers and, of course, they win a lot of games. Paired with the large amount of starter’s minutes seemingly available, there’s little reason why the Cats should struggle to add the kind of players they need.
And if Arizona can add that kind of talent to what’s set to return there is no reason to think the Cats will be anything other than a high seed with an opportunity to make a deep tournament run in ‘24.