The Arizona Republic

Wildcats evoke memories of breakthrou­gh 2021-22 season

- Bruce Pasco

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Tommy Lloyd doesn’t want to say it, so we will.

The parallels between the Arizona Wildcats’ first few weeks of last season and this one are striking.

To start last season, Lloyd’s first as the Wildcats’ head coach, Arizona raced over its three low-major opponents at McKale Center, and it still wasn’t clear who they were. Then they went to the Las Vegas Main Event, where they beat Wichita State and Michigan, and center Christian Koloko was named MVP.

Arizona vaulted into the national rankings and kept ascending all the way to the No. 2 spot while, after the season, Koloko wound up joining Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry in last June’s NBA Draft.

To start this season, Arizona raced over its first three low-major opponents despite losing those three players to the NBA Draft, and it still wasn’t clear who they were. Then they went to the Maui Invitation­al, beat nationally ranked San Diego State and Creighton, and center Oumar Ballo was named MVP.

Now, Arizona could vault all the way into the national Top 5 on Monday and, well, let’s just say a lot of people know who Ballo is now.

Here’s three other things that defined the Wildcats in Maui, and may continue to the rest of the season:

1. They’re going inside even more

While Lloyd’s offense demands everyone touch the ball offensivel­y, these Wildcats have found success a lot of the time going into the post.

Ballo averaged 21.0 points and 11.7 rebounds per game in Maui, while power forward Azuolas Tubelis averaged 18.7 points and 8.3 rebounds. Together, they helped the Wildcats outscore their three Maui opponents 136-71 in the paint, while holding them to a respectabl­e 47.3% from 2-point range.

“’Zu played, obviously, outstandin­g this whole tournament,” guard Kerr Kriisa said. “It’s funny how ’Zu scores 12, but you don’t even realize how he scores 12.”

The bigs’ efficiency also helped the Wildcats deflate Cincinnati’s press. Over three games in Maui, Arizona averaged 63.2% shooting from two-point range and now leads the country from inside the arc at 67.4% over all its six games.

2 . They’re more balanced

One reason why the Wildcats’ inside players are putting up the numbers they have is that Arizona is also shooting 45.0% from 3-pont range, the fifth-best mark in Division I.

Kerr Kriisa ranks 76th nationally with a 51.4 3-point percentage while Courtney Ramey (62.5 in 16 attempts), Adama Bal (4 for 11) and Pelle Larsson 6 of 16) have also been outside threats.

Together they’re creating sort of a pick-your-poison thing that prompted Creighton coach Greg McDermott to single-cover Ballo in the Maui Invitation­al final. That didn’t work out too well for the Bluejays, since Ballo went off for 30 points and 13 minutes.

“You have to make some decisions when you play them because of their ability to shoot the basketball,” McDermott said.

The Wildcats benefit the other way, too. After scoring 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting against San Diego State in the Maui semifinals, guard Courtney Ramey said the perimeter shooters had better shots to take because of the attention Ballo and Tubelis were drawing inside.

3. They may be even more together

While Lloyd managed to work in key holdovers from the Sean Miller era in Mathurin, Terry and Koloko last season, this season’s rotation is made up entirely of players he recruited — plus Baltic brothers Kriisa and Tubelis, two guys who have embraced and excelled in Lloyd’s European-influenced system.

Kriisa has never been afraid to say what he thinks, and as a junior this season, he’s asserted himself as a leader. Sitting next to Ballo on the postgame interview podium Wednesday, Kriisa used a playful tone to make sure the MVP didn’t start acting like an MVP.

While Kriisa said Ballo deserved the trophy, he also credited key contributi­ons from other players and said Ballo “doesn’t need to get his head in the clouds” because UA has more basketball coming up.

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