Rick Barnes is usually pretty good about scheduling his team a tough out-of-conference slate. This season, the Vols played Villanova, North Carolina, Colorado, Texas Tech and still have Arizona and a homecoming with the Texas Longhorns still to come. We were scheduled to play Memphis, too, but the Tigers backed out, allegedly, due to COVID concerns.
Arizona’s up next, and since the Vols almost never play those Wildcats — the one and only other time the two teams faced off was a 73-72 Arizona win back in 1998 — I thought this would be a good time for another Q&A.
I talked to Brian J Pederson, the managing editor of Arizona Desert Swarm, for some insight into what looks like one of the best hoops teams in the country this year. Just an FYI: some of these are a bit wordy, but I’m trying to give Vol fans some background before I ask my questions. Thanks to Brian for all the help! You can find anything he does via his Twitter, @therealbjp.
1) Arizona’s sitting at 11-0 and ranked 4th in Bart Torvik’s power ratings. The Wildcats have four pretty-good looking wins on their resume so far against Wichita State, Michigan, Wyoming and Illinois (all four teams are currently ranked inside Torvik’s top 100). It’s former Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd’s first season as Arizona’s Head Coach, and he’s got the Wildcats looking like one of the best teams in the country. Former coach Sean Miller recruited well and won 300 games in 12 seasons, but he got ousted back in April of this year.
What are the differences you’re seeing so far in how Lloyd runs a program versus how Miller did things? And what’s been the key to the transition going so seemingly seamlessly?
A: There’s a bit of irony in the fact that, under Sean Miller, Arizona’s Twitter handle was @APlayersProgram yet he seemed to be quite a micromanager. His system was very rigid and regimented, and that often led to future NBA players like Derrick Williams, Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson, Lauri Markkanen and, even Deandre Ayton to an extent, being handcuffed on offense.
Under Tommy Lloyd, the shackles are off. He doesn’t run plays for specific players, his offense is all about flow and finding the best option, but doing it as quickly as possible. Arizona plays super fast, but not reckless, which is hard to accomplish, but the roster has bought in.
2) Looking at Arizona’s three leading scorers — Bennedict Mathurin, Azuolas Tubelis, Christian Koloko — there’s clearly an international feel to the ‘Cats roster. I know Gonzaga’s big on global scouting, but it’s not like these guys just showed up with Tommy Lloyd. Was that an area Miller focused on, or did the roster just kinda come together like that?
I’ve noted this many times since the coaching change that it was almost like Miller (and assistant Jack Murphy, who was retained) were recruiting for Lloyd but just didn’t know it. I think that when the school decided to pull the plug on Miller, Lloyd was targeted early because of his international recruiting background and the hope he could manage to keep this team intact, and he did. Point guard Kerr Kriisa was in the transfer portal but Lloyd convinced him to come back, while Mathurin and Tubelis held off on beginning their pro careers.
3) Mathurin had been on some tear prior to Arizona’s last two games. He’d scored 29, 24 and 30 on a rather balmy 61 percent from the field before dropping just 11 against Northern Colorado and 14 against Cal Baptist. Did you notice anything different from him during that silly, three-game stretch of scoring? And is this the sophomore season you expected him to have?
Benn started this season very slowly on the offensive front, and a lot of that had to do with getting used to fitting into a system where he wasn’t filling a particular role. It was almost like he was unsure if he really could do everything he wanted, and he pressed. Once he got into a groove, that’s what you saw against Wichita and during that 3-game stretch.
These last two games, the opponents have been specifically trying to take him out of the equation on offense, but with Arizona having four different players who can be the leading scorer on any night just clamping down on one doesn’t really do much.
4) Tubelis and Koloko are averaging 15.8 and 13.2 points, respectively, which is a whole problem in and of itself, but then both guys are 6-11 or taller, too. What kinda problems are they creating for defenses, and are they in the mold of a more traditional, back-to-the-basket big man or are they stretch-4s with the ability to handle the ball and shoot it from deep?
And how are teams attacking them when Arizona’s on defense? They’re blocking nearly five shots per game between the two of them; how do you scheme against that?
Tubelis is possibly the best open-court big man in the country in his ability to run the floor in transition and score with ease. He doesn’t post up much, instead looking to draw bigger defenders away from the paint where his athleticism gives him a distinct advantage.
Koloko is more of a traditional center on offense, and with his development of a hook shot he’s become much harder to defend.
On the defensive end, Tubelis and Koloko are so strong at protecting the rim that Arizona’s defense is built around funneling shooters into the paint. The perimeter defenders are able to apply pressure without having to worry about getting beat off the dribble, because there’s a second line of defense.
5) Teams are averaging fewer than 11 assists per-game against Arizona so far this year, which is especially interesting when juxtaposed with the Wildcats’ offense having one of the highest assist percentages in the NCAA and having tallied more than 20 helpers in nine of 11 games.
Is there any one or two things you can point to on each side of the ball that’s fueling this trend?
As I noted earlier, Arizona is trying to get teams to go to the rim, which usually leads to individual drives and one-on-one attacks. There’s also the fact that the Wildcats are so good in transition that a lot of teams aren’t crashing the boards, hoping to get back on defense, and that lessens the possibility of a drive-and-kick scenario.
6) As far as I understand it, Arizona received its Notice of Allegations from the 2017 bribery investigation but is still awaiting an official ruling on the punishment from the NCAA. This is something that I think some Vol fans have kept an eye on since Will Wade and LSU are one of the other programs involved.
What’s Arizona on the hook for here? And how do Wildcats fans feel about the situation?
Arizona’s case, which is being handled by the NCAA’s Independent Accountability Review Program, centers around one former assistant getting nailed in the FBI bribery sting and another who allegedly helped a recruit who never attended the UA (Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s kid, who’s now at LSU) with an online class. There’s also an ‘inability to promote compliance’ charge against Miller.
The UA self-imposed a postseason ban last year, hoping that would prevent a future ban, and it probably will since a multi-year penalty like that is almost unheard of. Some scholarship reductions and cuts on recruiting time are likely, and Lloyd deliberately didn’t use all his scholarships this year in anticipation of that happening.
Lloyd’s contract actually calls for him to get an extra year added if Arizona gets hit with a postseason ban as well as the other penalties, but I don’t see that happening.
As for UA fans: I think they just want a resolution. Every day that goes by without one is another day of uncertainty and letting worst-case scenarios flood their minds.
7) How do you expect the game to play out? What about the rest of the season — what’s the fan expectations’ climate like?
Considering how good Tennessee has been on defense—Lloyd said the Vols have ‘cut and paste’ what Baylor and Texas Tech (under Chris Beard) have done—I’m very interested to see if their scheme can at least slow Arizona down. Michigan couldn’t, nor could Illinois, and Wichita didn’t take full advantage of the mistakes it forced, because the Wildcats are susceptible to turning it over but they’re good at limiting points off live-ball turnovers.
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Arizona lose this game, but it won’t be due to the atmosphere or playing on the road. It would just be from Tennessee slowing things down and making it like the Texas Tech game, albeit with a better outcome.
As for the season: this team has come together much better than anyone could have imagined, and a Pac-12 title as well as a run to the second week of the NCAA Tournament are very doable. A great indicator of whether that’s possible comes right after coming back from this game, as Arizona plays at UCLA and unbeaten USC as part of a 4-game road trip.
The fans? Like VolNation and other fervent fanbases, they’ve already become unrealistically optimistic, and we know how that turns out.
Thanks again to Brian for answering my always wordy questions. The Vols face Arizona at Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday, Dec., 22nd at 7 PM.