TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona is a bit of an unknown quantity, with a key returning core surrounded by talented newcomers who hope to make up for the loss of NBA talent.
If it sounds familiar, that’s just where the No. 17 Wildcats were heading into last season, Tommy Lloyd’s first as a head coach.
That one turned out pretty well, so no reason to think it won’t happen again.
Arizona enters its second season under Lloyd with several new players, but it’s a mix that’s expected to make the former longtime Gonzaga assistant two for two in NCAA Tournament opportunities.
“We have some really good players,” Lloyd said. “As a team we still have to put everything together, but at the end of the day we’re going to be really hard to beat.”
Arizona proved that last season. Arizona lost three players to the NBA, but Lloyd added some key components to the players who opted to return. Arizona won 33 games, reached the Sweet 16 and Lloyd won multiple national coach of the year honors, including from The Associated Press.
The Wildcats have a similar feel this season.
Bennedict Mathurin, Christian Koloko and Dalen Terry are now in the NBA. Azuolas Tubelis, Kerr Kriisa, Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo are all back. The cast of new players Lloyd added are impressive.
Guard Courtney Ramey arrives after playing four seasons at Texas, most of the time as a starter. Cedric Henderson Jr. was a proven scorer at Campbell, averaging 13.7 points in three seasons.
Serbian forward Filip Borovicanin and Estonian forward Henri Veesaar have proven themselves against international competition. Arizona also added two highly touted freshmen, big man Dylan Anderson and point guard Kyland Boswell, who will be eased into the rotation after offseason foot surgery.
It may take the new crew time to gel, but the talent and pieces appear to be in place for another March run.
Arizona could get a big boost from a player who was already on its roster: Adama Bal.
The 6-foot-6 French wing played a limited role last season, averaging 4.5 points in 23 games, but he played well for France in the FIBA under-20 championships this summer. Given a bigger role this season, Bal could be ready for a breakout season.
“By the time November rolls around, I figure he’s going to be a mainstay and have a chance to impact every single game,” Lloyd said.
One of Lloyd’s goals within his program is to add toughness after the Wildcats were manhandled by Houston in the Sweet 16.
Lloyd has pushed his players to be more physical in practice, particularly in the paint. He’s also urged players like the 6-11, 245-pound Tubelis and 7-foot, 260-pound Ballo to use their size and leverage more to their advantage.
“To me, there’s nothing that bums me out more than physically being overmatched,” Lloyd said. “So what do we have to do to make sure when we tee it up we can physically bring the fight. To me, therein lies toughness. That’s the price of entry: you’ve got to be tough.”
Larsson got a late start to his first season in Tucson due to offseason foot surgery. The Swedish transfer from Utah had a solid year, averaging 7.2 points and 3.4 rebounds, but Lloyd would like him to play with more confidence and ramp up his defense.
“Pelle has to manifest a bit of his success and have more belief in himself,” Lloyd said. “He’s a really good basketball player and definitely trending in the right direction.”
Lloyd likes to schedule tough, something he learned from Gonzaga coach Mark Few. The Wildcats had a few games fall through for various reasons, but will still have some tough nonconference games.
Arizona’s first big test will come at the Maui Invitational. The Wildcats open against Cincinnati, with potential games against No. 10 Arkansas, No. 25 Texas Tech, Louisville, Ohio State and No. 19 San Diego State later in the bracket.
Arizona also plays Indiana in Las Vegas and has a home game against No. 11 Tennessee.
“I definitely think we scheduled well enough to give ourselves a chance to win an at-large bid, and if we perform well in our schedule, we probably have a chance to get a decent seed in the (NCAA) tournament,” Lloyd said.
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