Gold: After the shock wears off for Arizona, is this the new reality?
To have watched the Arizona men’s basketball teams of the mid-2010s was to have seen a team on the verge of completeness, harmony on a basketball floor, if only missing a few key notes. Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell, Stanley Johnson and Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York — it was as complete a collection of talent as the Wildcats have ever boasted, and seeing them fall just short of back-to-back Final Fours was like witnessing an incredible movie with a disappointing finish.
Ah well, the hero didn’t get the girl. Still a good flick.
This Arizona basketball team was not that.
Flawed from the start, with inconsistent outside shooting, a shallow bench, and also the most productive player in the conference, the Wildcats were not even close to last year’s team, which went 33-3 before falling as a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16 to a tougher, stronger Houston team.
On Thursday afternoon, I’m not so sure the 15-seed Princeton Tigers were stronger, but they were most certainly tougher, and here we are again, with Arizona handed a stunning early exit, as the No. 2 seed Wildcats fell, 59-55.
As called by @DerekJones79 on Princeton Tigers radio & heard on the @varsity app: pic.twitter.com/q3WgGe90y1
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 16, 2023
For Arizona fans who are used to disappointment, this is just the latest in a long line dating back a quarter century, when the 1997 Wildcats became the last Pac-12 team to cut down the nets.
But now that it’s happened twice in two years under Tommy Lloyd, who suffered two decades of near-misses with Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Wildcats fans are facing the reality that not much has changed.
March after March, madness after madness.
Even with this version not ideally suited to make a March Madness run, flaws and all, this is unfathomable.
Even the first half, which saw Arizona go up by 8 early only to let the Tigers back, ultimately heading into halftime up 31-30, was a bit shocking. In the first half, the Wildcats’ starting guards were totally stifled by the quick and witty Tigers. Kerr Kriisa, Courtney Ramey and C.J. Henderson combined for 2-of-9 shooting and 1-for-7 from deep and an Arizona team that averages 82.7 points per game was held to 31.
When Lloyd was asked about the words of a tearful Pelle Larsson, who told reporters that he thought the team lacked energy, he was perplexed. Maybe he shouldn’t have been.
“Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t know. I know that wasn’t the message,” he said. “I thought we had a good week of preparation. I thought we were trying to build for a tournament run. Maybe, I don’t know, some of these guys just were a little bit nervous. I don’t know. I don’t know. Or they expected the game to be easier than what it was. That definitely wasn’t the message from the coaching staff.
“I just know this: nothing great in life is achieved without energy and enthusiasm. I mean, I think that’s one of those things these players need to take a look in the mirror. That’s controllable by them, is their effort and their energy. So we can be better there.”
Now is when you’re learning that lesson?
Fool me once, Tommy, fool me once.
Forgive me for having thought the Arizona men’s basketball team had matured from last season, had stared an early exit in the eye and vowed to not go down swinging like last year, when one of the most impressive seasons in program history went up in flames in the 12-point Sweet 16 loss to Houston.
It appears Arizona learned little, and now they stare at a long offseason once more.
If Lloyd was befuddled by the Wildcats’ lack of energy, he was stoic and reserved in respect to everything else.
Sitting in the post-game press conference, with local and national media clamoring for some emotion, Lloyd offered little.
“This coaching thing is hard because you’re literally judged on wins and losses in a moment’s notice. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to live your life if you are a coach,” he said. “I mean, I know it’s gut-wrenching. I’ll probably go through a sway of emotions in the next few days. I love what I do, and I couldn’t imagine having a real job. I’m thankful for the job. I’m thankful for the opportunity our president, who is sitting here, gave me. I owe it to the game of basketball. I owe it to these players. I owe it to my family to keep my head up, stay classy. I think that’s the only way to operate.
“I promise you I’ll get better from this. I have lots of room to grow as a coach. I’m hard on myself every day. You know, I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and start the process of getting better.”
On the one hand, you have to admire a leader not falling to pieces when the chips are down. We saw that in 2018 with Tony Bennett, when his Virginia Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a 16 seed in a shocker against UMBC. The very next year, the Cavaliers cut down the nets.
On the other hand, Lloyd didn’t quite own this loss like he should have. Earlier in the presser, he bemoaned the lack of fouls called on Princeton’s post players, particularly in light of Azuolas Tubelis’ big game. He had 22 points, but like the rest of the Wildcats, faded down the stretch, as they were outscored 9-0 in the last 4:45.
Arizona, which at one point led 47-35, simply crumbled.
Arjzona is the only program to lose twice in the first round as a No. 2 seed, and game-flow parallels are striking:
March 19, 1993
Wildcats lead No. 15 Santa Clara 46-33, then outscored 31-15
March 16, 2023
Wildcats lead No. 15 Princeton 47-35, then outscored 24-8
— Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline) March 17, 2023
But Tubelis certainly isn’t to blame for Thursday.
Aside from Oumar Ballo — who had 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting and 12 rebounds — no other Wildcat had more than Ramey’s eight points. But he went 4-for-10, Kriisa went 1-for-7 from the field — all of them 3-point attempts — and Henderson had two points on 1-for-4 shooting. The bench didn’t do much better, with Larsson and Kylan Boswell scoring a combined seven points.
“We ran into a good team today that made the right plays at the right time,” Lloyd said. “We weren’t able to separate from them enough when we had opportunities. That’s what happens when you’re able to stick around a basketball game. They made enough plays down the stretch and we didn’t. I’ll tip my hat to them. They’re a hard team to play against. I knew it was going to be a tough game. I know that program has a ton of pride. They’re well-coached, have great fundamentals. That showed today.”
Will it show in the future?
Is this the kind of lesson that needed to be learned? Does Lloyd learn to stretch the bench, so that poor shooting nights can be masked? Do the players take a good, long look at their effort and energy?
After setting a record with 61 wins in his first two seasons as a head coach, it’s not exactly like Arizona needs to go back to the drawing board.
But something has to change.
“Listen, I love the direction the program’s going,” Lloyd said. “I mean, this isn’t going to be a setback. It’s not going to be a setback. We as a program have to rally around that. We control how we react from this. I’m super proud of these guys. I’m super proud of all those guys in the locker room.”