Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd using big men as recipe for program

Feb 25, 2023, 7:02 AM
Head coach Tommy Lloyd of the Arizona Wildcats  points during the NCAAB game at McKale Center on Ja...
Head coach Tommy Lloyd of the Arizona Wildcats points during the NCAAB game at McKale Center on January 03, 2022 in Tucson, Arizona. The Arizona Wildcats won 95-79 against the Washington Huskies. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)

The Arizona Wildcats are on the verge of back-to-back top-10 season finishes in The Associated Press men’s basketball poll under current head coach Tommy Lloyd, who built a winning system since he was hired in 2021.

The main recipe to the winning culture down in Tucson has consisted of big men. During the 2021-22 season, it was Christian Koloko (drafted by the Raptors in 2022) and then-sophomore forward Azuolas Tubelis. This season, it’s been Tubelis and redshirt junior center Oumar Ballo.

“I love bigs and I love developing bigs. You know I’m always telling people … the analogy would be like, you don’t do this much in Arizona, but mowing your yard,” Lloyd told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Wednesday.

“And for every lap you take around your yard, you see a little bit of progress. You know, bigs are the same thing. I mean, every day you work with bigs you can see and feel them getting better. So I really love that process of the development of the big guy, and we play a system that tries to take advantage of that.”

Ballo spent his first two years at Gonzaga but got redshirted due to eligibility issues. His college career started in 2020, averaging 2.5 points as a freshman. Then after that, he transferred to Arizona with Lloyd and averaged 6.8 points off the bench as a sophomore. As a junior, Ballo has unlocked his potential, starting all 28 games (after starting zero last season) and averaging 14.6 points and 9 rebounds thus far in 2022-23.

Tubelis has also shown improvement year after year. He’s been a core starter for the program the last two seasons, but this year the stats have popped off the page with 19.6 points and 9.6 rebounds.

“I kind of always joke with him after the game like, ‘OK Azuolas, looks like another crappy 24 (points) and 13 (rebounds), because I don’t realize during the game the numbers he is putting up until I look at the stat sheet after,” Lloyd said.

“Sometimes it surprises me how productive he is and he’s just developed into a force in college basketball and he’s tremendous at running the floor. He’s got amazing hands. He’s our version of the Gronk. Some of these over-the-top passes he’s able to catch and playing in transition for a big guy is really unique.”

This season, Arizona has eight international players on its roster, with three of them being day-to-day starters. Outside of building the program around big men, the exponential growth of international players has also become a main part of the recipe.

“It’s definitely part of the DNA,” Lloyd said. “I don’t think it’s any more difficult than finding the right fit for your program … I think what you’re doing is you’re always looking for the people that will come in and contribute to your culture and be great people on and off the court. And if you look at this game, it is an international game now and you look at these NBA rosters and I think over a third of the players or even more are international now so to have you’re head in the sand and to think that that’s not part of it might be limiting yourself a little bit.

“We’re always looking for the best fit for the program and that can mean different things. Maybe … there’s an American kid who you might be able to get but he’s really good but he might disrupt your roster because you have too many guys at one spot so maybe you go get an international guy who is a little bit younger and will come and develop underneath the guys that are going to play that year.”

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Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd using big men as recipe for program