ARIZONA BASKETBALL

Arizona basketball’s Tommy Lloyd wants toughness, suggests more small-ball for 2023-24 team

Oct 11, 2023, 12:04 PM

Pelle Larson, Arizona Wildcats...

Pelle Larsson #3 of the Arizona Wildcats handles the ball against the UCLA Bruins in the first half of the championship game of the Pac-12 basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena on March 11, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Wildcats defeated the Bruins 61-59. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

An opening-round NCAA Tournament loss to No. 15 seed Princeton came up several times over the course of the Arizona Wildcats’ time on the main stage Wednesday at Pac-12 men’s basketball media day in Las Vegas.

How did it motivate the Wildcats this offseason?

What went wrong?

Were there schematic factors that could change the 2023-24 Arizona team for the better?

“The first thing I thought after that Princeton game is I need to increase our margin for error,” head coach Tommy Lloyd said Wednesday. “And to me, toughness is a way you do that. If you want to be competitive in these games, sometimes you have to physically dominate your opponent.

“Toughness is a cornerstone of our program and I think for us to be able to make sure when you get to March … toughness has to be a key element of everything we do.”

The answer to redemption could be about adding that toughness. That would be Arizona acknowledging that a Princeton team led by one borderline NBA prospect ground it down, matching it physically and grounding the Wildcats’ size advantage with the since-departed Azuolas Tubelis and returning center Oumar Ballo.

Lloyd obviously took note. He not only retained talent but added it in the transfer portal and with the incoming recruiting class. So what does that mean for not letting an early March exit happen again?

Arizona basketball could play smaller this year

Tubelis opted for the NBA and left 19.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists on the table. With his decision to go pro, there’s room for change.

The Wildcats won’t change their style — Lloyd was asked directly about that — but because of personnel might look more modern with fewer two-big lineups, the head coach said.

That has a little bit to do with the lack of an elite post-up player outside of Ballo. At least, the bigs they have available are more floor-spacers and defenders than Tubelis.

Keshad Johnson, a starter for San Diego State’s national championship run last season, is a versatile forward who fits more of the NBA mold at the 4.

Arizona could also start Pelle Larsson, who has been in and out of the starting lineup over the last two seasons. He was on the outskirts of the NBA radar last season but could boost his stock by allowing his size and skillset to shine more in a starring role.

At media day, he notably spoke on being more in attack mode.

“Just finding more ways within our offense to score, find the right opportunities to get your shot off. Then get more aggressive,” Larsson said of what he’s looking to improve on in 2023-24.

Larsson in theory could also land as a starting forward, if the Wildcats opt to start all three of their talented guards: Kylan Boswell, Caleb Love and Jaden Bradley.

Between Larsson, Johnson and the reliability in the guard group, Arizona playing its best players might simply mean going smaller.

The trio of guards, two wings and Ballo accounts for only six rotation spots, however.

The depth is there if the Wildcats can defend

Arizona’s offseason of exhibition work in Europe, including a win over a Lebanese national team, obviously was used to get a look at all of its pieces.

It was hard to judge who could win rotation roles, but Lloyd appears to have a versatile toolbox to choose from.

“Deepest roster I’ve been a part of,” Larsson said, adding that the Wildcats can put together three even, competitive teams in practices.

Lithuanian freshman Motiejus Krivas could give sophomores Henri Veesaar and Dylan Anderson a run for their money as a backup to Ballo — or even play in bigger lineups as a 4.

Fellow Lithuanian Paulius Murauskas and four-star recruit K.J. Lewis could factor in at wing, as could sophomore shooter Filip Borovicanin. Spanish point guard Conrad Martinez could push his way into the picture, but it might be tough at the point if Boswell and Bradley are healthy.

Lloyd suggested that making the Wildcats into a better defensive team is a priority. The head coach cited a No. 21-ranked defense, per KenPom, in 2021-22 that fell off to 39th last year. Lloyd wants Arizona to crack top-10 territory in 2023-24.

And that’s where players making the rotation or not could be decided. For what it’s worth, Krivas last year played for the second-tier Zalgiris team and won a Lithuanian championship before he was named as the best defensive in that second-level pro league.

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