How to replace 3 pros: New and old faces must step up for Arizona basketball
There are rich college basketball program problems for the Arizona Wildcats in the second year of Tommy Lloyd’s tenure.
That said, in Tucson, the honeymoon phase will be over as soon as Arizona loses a few games in a row. Multiple losses in a row did not happen last season as Lloyd’s team, flush with returning players recruited by former head coach Sean Miller, went 31-3 before falling as a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16 to Houston.
To follow that hype-building start for Lloyd’s tenure, the Wildcats lost Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko to the NBA Draft.
All of them have played in the majority of their team’s games, with Mathurin right in the rookie-of-the-year mix.
That’s a lot of talent gone.
And while enough players return to believe there’s some carryover from last season’s success, there is a large hill to climb to meet the expectations, even with a No. 17 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 heading into 2022-23.
Arizona Wildcats who must step up
Azuolas Tubelis | F
Tubelis lacks a few things to ding his potential pro potential when it comes to the NBA, but his value to last year’s team was right there with his three teammates who are now in the league.
He averaged 13.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, shooting 54%. If he can bump his clean-looking three-pointer above the 26% accuracy from a year ago, suddenly he gets a lot more dangerous.
The efficiency might dip a bit for the smooth big man, whose passing skills get overlooked and will be even more important now with defenses keying on him as the top open. Tubelis might not find 58% of his shots at the rim like a year ago, but creating off the attack is where his instinctive play should serve him well.
While our next Wildcat is inarguably the energizer of the 2022-23 Arizona team, Tubelis is the clear-cut best player. The question is how he navigates that as more attention lands on him.
Kerr Kriisa | G
Kriisa spent the offseason playing for the Estonian national team, and that experience you would think allows him to take the next step as a junior.
Lloyd during Pac-12 media day said he’d like to get Kriisa to take more shots inside the three-point line — 7.2 of his 8.7 attempts per game in 2021-22 were from deep. Kriisa was asked what that evolution looked like, to which he responded, “more threes.”
It might not be a joke. We’re not sure.
In any case, Kriisa has more on his shoulders this season. He has the personality and fire to make up for the loss of Terry, who not only played defensive nuisance but also playmaker when Kriisa was banged up in the NCAA Tournament. Who is that secondary perimeter playmaker now remains to be seen.
Pelle Larsson | G
Essentially Arizona’s sixth-man from a year ago, he brings experience with 67 games in Pac-12 play between Utah and Arizona in his first two seasons. Of the Wildcats’ perimeter players, he was the most efficient from a true shooting perspective (61.7%) thanks to his 48% shooting from the field, 36% from three and 81% from the line.
An underrated athlete as a defender and underrated passer, he’s well-rounded and averaged 7.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 22 minutes per game last year.
Larsson, though, might need to take on a more aggressive attitude if Kriisa’s scoring identity — 34.8% field goal percentage on mostly a diet of threes — doesn’t change much. Larsson, at least, has the skillset.
Newcomers to know
Courtney Ramey | G | Texas
Like his starting backcourt mate in Kriisa, Ramey is not fond of attacking the rim. But he was a decent midrange shooter and shot half of his baskets from three-point range, hitting at a 35% clip. He’s also a physical defender who has 128 college games at Texas under his belt.
Ramey is a willing passer as well, who averaged 3.9 assists per game in 2020-21.
Cedric Henderson | G/F | Campbell
The fourth-year wing is a three-level scorer and a relatively efficient one at that; 72% at the rim, 41% on two-point jumpers and 38% from three.
His length can slot him in Larsson’s role from a year ago, and he projects as the sixth or seventh man on this team.
Henri Veesaar | F | Estonia
The Estonian and freshman guard Kylan Boswell can fight for the label as the most-heralded freshman. Boswell might not have an avenue to playing time because of the guard depth ahead of him, but it appears Lloyd could find time for Veesaar up front.
The thin 7-footer will struggle from a physical perspective even if he competes, but he has shooting chops that could bring a big boost for a team lacking spacing in the frontcourt.
Role players in line to take on more
Oumar Ballo | C
Bulky college bigs don’t get played off the court like they do in the NBA. The spacing is tighter and there are fewer islands to get stuck on.
In fact, guys like Ballo tend to make a positive impact on defense even if they aren’t quite a step ahead or a step even from a reaction perspective.
Offensively, they obviously can make a difference, too. Behind Koloko a year ago Ballo got plenty of experience. From a film perspective, the awareness was iffy.
From an impact standpoint, he was often times a problem enough to average 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 15 minutes per game. Now the 7-foot, 260-pound center will be asked to do a lot more and do it more consistently.
If he catches up mentally, he’ll be capable of playing 30 minutes a night on defense. His 74% accuracy at the rim is an obvious benefit that will remain.
Adama Bal | G
That Bal snuck into the rotation late in the season as a player young for being a freshman said something last year. Lloyd trusts him.
Bal played for his French national team in the U-20 circuit this offseason, taking on a larger role that he could mirror at Arizona in 2022-23.
He can shoot, has the lanky frame to defend and showed aggression off the dribble en route to 11 free throws in the Wildcats’ exhibition win against Western Oregon on Tuesday.
Bal looks like he has the athletic tool kit to put his name into the NBA Draft at some point, but it remains to be seen if this is the year he makes a leap forward.
Adama Bal put his shooting on display last week during the FIBA U20 European Championship. Over 7 games, Bal shot 37.9% (11-29) from 3, and showed his ability to shoot spotting up, off-movement, and off-the-dribble. Along w/ his shooting, he also showed off nice touch on floaters pic.twitter.com/5Pd0884pM7
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) July 25, 2022