‘There was really no decision to be made’: Why Tommy Lloyd chose Arizona, and how he plans to win

TUCSON, Arizona — Riccardo Fois laughs ironically when asked how Tommy Lloyd might adapt the Gonzaga blueprint to Arizona.

“Arizona was the blueprint for the original Gonzaga,” the Wildcats assistant said. “Arizona and Duke. Lute Olson and Coach K and the brotherhood and the way everybody was together, was one of the things Coach [Mark] Few tried to build.”

Jack Murphy, who attended Arizona and has now been on three different staffs in Tucson, shared a similar sentiment.

“The things they did early on at Gonzaga mirrored our program,” Murphy said.

The emphasis on developing unknown or unheralded talent. The uptempo, simplified version of offensive basketball. The connection with players and with a community viewed as vitally important in challenging better-resourced, bigger-city national competition. Gonzaga took that blueprint from Arizona. In 2021, under the 20-year Zags assistant Lloyd, the Wildcats are taking it right back.

During the same period when a cloud has loomed over the Arizona-basketball program, Gonzaga has won at least 28 games in nine straight seasons and advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in six straight NCAA tournaments. The Zags have landed a top-five prospect in two straight recruiting classes, including Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 prospect in 2021.

And now Arizona is hoping Lloyd, the 46-year-old longtime Gonzaga aide this outlet once suggested was “college basketball’s most important coach,” can bring some of that Spokane magic to the other side of the West Coast.

Will it work?

“I’m sure the things I do are very similar to the Gonzaga Way,” Lloyd said. “It’s what I knew, it’s what I was a part of. Coming down here, I’m being really open-minded to what makes Arizona great, what works at Arizona. … I don’t want to come in and say, ‘I’m the head coach, I’m putting my mark on everything.'”

ARIZONA WAS THE first head coaching job Tommy Lloyd actually wanted.

Lloyd, an assistant under Mark Few for two decades at Gonzaga, was comfortable in Spokane. He was in his home state, one of the highest-paid assistant coaches in the country and had it written in his contract that he was the next head coach once Few retired. Lloyd had turned down multiple interview requests from schools interested in hiring him. He’d even moved into the childhood home of Gonzaga legend John Stockton when Lloyd’s new house was being built a few summers ago.

By all accounts, Lloyd’s future resided in Spokane, at Gonzaga. But Arizona’s appeal proved undeniable.

“The only thing that changed this is the University of Arizona,” said Lloyd, who moved to Tucson with his wife, Chanelle, and their two teenage daughters, Sofia and Maria. The Lloyds’ son, Liam, plays college basketball nearby at Grand Canyon. “Gonzaga is at a certain level; we had it rolling, it was awesome. This came, the timing, the stars kind of aligned. Where we’re at in our lives, where Coach Few is at in his coaching career — still at the top of his game and doing great — I thought this was my chance to be a head coach at a place that I really respected.”

The quality of the opportunity was one thing. The murky immediate future of the program was another.

The Wildcats have been ensnared in the 2017 federal investigation into corruption in college basketball, and the NCAA charged the school with five Level I violations, allegedly committed under former coach Sean Miller, last spring. Arizona self-imposed a one-year postseason ban for last season, and it’s unclear what the program’s final punishment will be when the IARP hands down its verdict, perhaps as soon as next spring.

Despite the off-court drama, Arizona is considered a top-10 job, with a national championship and four Final Fours in its history, as well as the best fan base and homecourt atmosphere in the Pac-12.

“To get a job like this, there has to be something that happened. Because people don’t leave these types of jobs,” Lloyd said. “You’re not going to walk into a situation and have it be perfect — especially me, never having been a head coach. I don’t think I could have expected it perfect. … If I don’t go for it, maybe I’ll regret it. Once I thought that, there was really no decision to be made.”

He won’t be in completely unfamiliar company either. There’s something of a Gonzaga mini-reunion taking place in Tucson, with Lloyd hiring four people with ties to the Zags soon after taking over at U of A: assistant coach Fois, who was at Gonzaga for five seasons (2014-19) before joining the Phoenix Suns’ staff for two seasons (2019-21); recruiting coordinator TJ Benson, who was at Gonzaga for the past two seasons before Lloyd hired him at Arizona; director of advanced scouting Ken Nakagawa, a member of the Zags staff since 2014 before joining Lloyd; and director of player development Rem Bakamus, previously a walk-on at Gonzaga before going to Baylor as a graduate assistant and winning a national championship with the Bears in 2020-21.

So when people ask about the Gonzaga blueprint being used to return Arizona to its glory days, it’s not just about Lloyd.

“We’re all here because of the vision,” Fois said. “We all see basketball with the same eyes. Not just on the court. But the big picture. How to treat players the right way, how to help them outside of the basketball court, in their future lives. That vision of building something special, I think it aligns with what Arizona wants to be and is.”

Arizona hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2018, though the Wildcats were headed for the dance in 2020 before it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. That drought comes after six straight tournament appearances, five Sweet 16s in seven years and three Elite Eights over that span. Despite the negative headlines in recent years, Arizona isn’t that far removed from being one of the most consistently successful programs in the country.

Under Miller, Arizona recruited as well as anyone nationally. The Wildcats had a top-seven class every year from 2012-2017, including commitments from three top-five prospects, and then landed three more top-50 prospects in 2019. But it’s impossible to judge Arizona’s recruiting success under Miller without acknowledging the recruiting-related scandal — including but not limited to alleged illicit payments to No. 1 prospect Deandre Ayton — that helped bring the entire Miller era to an end.

Still, Lloyd is quick to credit Miller for what he achieved on the court, calling it an “amazing accomplishment.” He says he quizzed Miller on his Arizona experience when Lloyd was invited to dinner at his house after getting the job.

“We talked about everything,” Lloyd said. “Coaching, the situation, of course I wanted to know what he thinks. He sat in this chair recently. He knows a lot of things about this place and this job.”

LLOYD IS KNOWN as the best international recruiter in college basketball, helping lure more than a dozen overseas prospects to Spokane. As a result, Arizona’s squad is tailor-made for him. Five international players remained on the roster after Miller left, and Lloyd went out and recruited three more, including Oumar Ballo, who transferred from Gonzaga to Arizona.

Arizona had a deep international recruiting class in 2020, with six international signees, including NBA prospect Bennedict Mathurin, Azuolas Tubelis and Kerr Kriisa. Part of that was out of necessity — Arizona had to cast a geographically wider net due to the stain of the scandal — but the international holdovers give Lloyd a solid talent base. They also helped keep the roster together following the coaching change.

“You have the guy known as the international guru coming in and coaching the team,” Murphy said. “I think almost every one of them knew who he was.”

Arizona’s returning players said Lloyd’s international reputation was an important part of his sales pitch, inspiring them to stay in spite of record movement within the NCAA transfer portal.

“I felt like it really helped,” Mathurin said. “He came here with the intention of being a head coach, he knew what type of players we had, the type of players he had been recruiting. He was ready for Arizona.”

Since taking over in Tucson, Lloyd hit the transfer portal for Justin Kier (Georgia), Pelle Larsson (Utah) and Kim Aiken Jr., (Eastern Washington) and signed French guard Adama Bal. In the 2022 class, he reeled in ESPN 100 center Dylan Anderson.

“Tommy’s a new coach, we have no film to show of Arizona; every film we showed [recruits] was Tommy at another school,” said associate head coach Murphy, a holdover from Miller’s staff who says recruits continue to ask questions about the NCAA investigation. “Eliminate those things and there’s not too many obstacles to getting this thing back rolling. There’s reasons [for recruits] to say no now. Those reasons are going away here pretty soon.”

Bringing Arizona back to a place where it can compete for Final Fours is part of the message to recruits, but Lloyd isn’t going to hang his hat entirely on recruiting elite prospects. Up until the last couple years, Gonzaga wasn’t landing the Chet Holmgrens and Jalen Suggses of the world; the Zags had to be creative. That meant international prospects, transfers, under-recruited high schoolers — and then relying heavily on player development.

“Of course it’s super important,” Lloyd said of recruiting. “But you don’t want it to be the overriding factor over the entire program. The No. 1 job is the players you’ve got. If we do a great job hedging our bets on player development and recruiting, sometimes the kid you’re developing is better than any recruit. It takes pressure off getting a guy every time, so you can focus on getting the right guy.”

Lloyd says flexibility — having a plan B and a plan C — matters in the roster-building process too.

“At Gonzaga, we weren’t recruiting 10 McDonald’s All-Americans. We would be bummed we didn’t get a recruit and then Zach Norvell was better than any recruit. Joel Ayayi, same thing. That’s an example of hedging your bet with player development. … I’m not being naive, you need really good players to win and you have to recruit high-level guys. But I don’t want to be beating our head against the wall [if we miss] or when we do get a recruit.”

LIKE MANY TEAMS at the college and pro levels, Arizona has every player, coach and staff member take a half-court shot at the end of morning shootaround on gameday. The Wildcats did it prior to their Red-Blue game festivities here at the McKale Center on Oct. 2. Every player missed, then every support staff member missed, then every assistant coach missed.

Up stepped Lloyd, and he buried it.

For an Arizona fan base desperate for optimism after the last few years, that’s as good an omen as they can ask for.

And if a blueprint is only as good as its execution, Lloyd knows what happens on this court is the only way to achieve proof of concept. On the practice floor, the Gonzaga homage is apparent in the system Lloyd is installing.

The tenets of the Zags’ offense are a dominant theme in Arizona’s preseason practices: countless dribble handoffs, constant ball-screens, big men involved away from the basket, playing with pace.

There are also clear growing pains, part of which stem from the previous system under Miller. In the last five years, Arizona ranked No. 198 or slower in pace four times, while Gonzaga was seventh nationally last season in tempo. The other part is the team’s two point guards — returnee Kriisa and the Georgia transfer Kier — are adjusting after playing alongside ball-dominant guards last season.

Lloyd has harped on eliminating something he calls “all or nothing plays.”

“Offense looks like the ball moving, players moving, players reading and reacting to situations and opportunities and coverages on the court,” Lloyd said. “And then trusting each other enough to make a bunch of simple plays. … If your whole offense is dictated on doing hard things over and over again, you’re not going to be able to beat good teams.”

An offense using international principles — pace, space and skill at all five positions — also naturally caters to a roster heavy on overseas players.

“He’s known to play the European way,” Kriisa said. “That’s like my baby. That’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years. All the stuff he’s teaching here right now for all of us, back in Europe it’s taught when you’re 13, 14. That’s the right way how you play basketball. “

One player who stands to benefit from the change in system is Tubelis. The Lithuanian forward was one of the best freshmen in the Pac-12 last season, but is hoping to expand his offensive game under Lloyd.

“We’ll play faster for sure,” Tubelis added. “And I really like that kind of pace because I like to run. Last season I ran but not that much because I wasn’t able to push the ball after the rebounds. Now I will push the ball, I will shoot more 3s, I will make decisions at the top of the key. I really like this pace.”

Arizona’s players believe the transition to Lloyd’s preferred style can happen fast — and can lead to the kind of winning that makes this program a Final Four contender again.

“That’s our goal,” junior center Christian Koloko said. “We’re going to get back there by winning games. And then everybody will want to come play for Arizona.”

On this Friday afternoon at McKale, there were ups and downs, but progress was evident.

“Habits, guys. Habits!” Lloyd yelled to his players. “That’s why we’re doing this. For the details.”

After one particular passage of play ended in a well-executed basket, Lloyd was pleased.

“That’s offense!”

LLOYD ISN’T WAITING until potential NCAA sanctions come down before beginning his rebuild in Tucson. The expectation within the program is that this is an NCAA tournament-caliber team, and that’s the goal for year one.

“These kids have worked their asses off, and they deserve a chance to be the best team they can be, to play as deep into the postseason as they can play,” Lloyd said. “And that’s what we’re going to fight for. Until it’s taken away from us, that’s what we’re fighting for. “

Some early preseason predictions have Arizona as low as No. 7 in the Pac-12, perhaps surprising given that the Wildcats return four starters off a team that finished fifth in the league and ranked in the top 30 nationally in adjusted efficiency at KenPom.

That billing hasn’t gone unnoticed in the program.

“When people come watch us, every single person in the gym can say, this is an f-in team right here,” Kriisa said. “Not just individuals. It’s a whole-ass unit.”

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