As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just about one month from now - and to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, written by Torres Online. by college hoops writer Zac Krull and Aaron Torres
In case you missed it, we've already previewed the Memphis Tigers, then hit the Illinois Fighting Illini, Wyoming Cowboys, Xavier Musketeers, Michigan State Spartans, Texas Tech Red Raiders and Alabama Crimson Tide. We also covered Dayton, a Top 25 team at A-10 Media Days.
Now it's time to look at the Arizona Wildcats. UofA burst on the scene last year. Now we'll see what Tommy Lloyd has in store for an encore.
How it Went Down in 2021-2022
The 2021-2022 Arizona Wildcats basketball season will be remembered as a year of transition.
Both figuratively and literally.
And to say it couldn't have gone much better, well, that would be an understatement.
The story of the season really started back in March of 2021, where after over a decade of success under Sean Miller which included three trips to the Elite Eight, but also ended with FBI and NCAA investigators, the school moved on. The firing of Miller came shortly after the 2021 national title game featuring Gonzaga and Baylor, and just a few days after that, Gonzaga's lead assistant, Tommy Lloyd, was named Arizona's next head coach.
To Miller's credit, he left the cupboard full for Lloyd, as the new coach inherited a loaded roster that included three players who would eventually become Top 35 picks in the next NBA Draft (Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko) as well as All-Pac 12 forward Azuolas Tubelis and starting point guard Kerr Kriisa. Lloyd added his own flair by bringing in Gonzaga transfer Oumar Ballo and guard Justin Kier out of the portal as well.
And when that team hit the floor, well, it was like a match to gasoline.
The Wildcats first big splash came with back-to-back wins in Las Vegas, and another signature win came in early December in a road victory at eventual Big Ten champion Illinois. The team ended up starting the year 11-0 before a cross-country trip to Tennessee put the first loss of the season on their resume.
More than just winning games though, the group that Lloyd inherited meshed perfectly with the style of play that he brought from Gonzaga. Lloyd brought out the absolute best in some of the players he inherited as Mathurin turned into one of the best players in college basketball (he put up 30 points at Illinois and another 28 at Tennessee) and over time, Terry evolved into the ultimate "Robin" playing both off the ball when Kriisa was in games, but on the ball as well when Kriisa needed a breather. Kriisa became one of the most dynamic guards in the sport and Koloko one of the best defensive players in the sport.
By the time Pac-12 play began the Wildcats hit their stride, not only establishing themselves as the best team in the conference but one of the best - and most fun to watch - in the sport. They won their first five Pac-12 games before a late January loss at Pauley Pavillion, then ripped nine straight and 12 of their last 13, claiming the school's 17th Pac-12 regular season title. A week later, they would win their eighth Pac-12 Tournament title as well.
Unfortunately, the tournament win in Las Vegas would come at a cost, with guard Kerr Kriisa going down with injury in an opening round game against Stanford. He was unavailable for the remainder of the tournament wasn't the same when he returned in the Big Dance.
Speaking of the Big Dance, the Wildcats cruised in their opener, before playing what would end up as an instant classic in the Round of 32 against TCU. The Wildcats trailed by three with 1:17 left, only to rally late. A Mathurin three forced overtime, and a Terry steal at the end of regulation nearly won it.
The Wildcats completed the thrilling victory in overtime.
Sadly, it would go down as the final win of the season, as a few days later the Wildcats would fall to Houston in the Sweet 16. A stifling Houston defense limited the Wildcats to just 60 points, their second lowest total of the season, sending the No. 1 seed in the West home ahead of schedule.
Still, the loss couldn't put a damper on what was otherwise a dream season in Tucson, one in which a new era began, under a new coach, with a new, fast fun style of play.
Lloyd exceeded all reasonable expectations in Year 1.
Now, it's time to see what he has for an encore.
What You Need to Know About 2022-2023
Key Returnees: Kerr Kriisa, Azoulas Tubelis, Oumar Ballo, Pelle Larsson, Adama Bal
Key Losses: Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry, Christian Koloko, Justin Kier
Key Transfers: Courtney Ramey (Texas), Cedric Henderson Jr. (Campbell)
Key Recruits: Kylan Boswell, Filip Borovicanin, Henri Veesaar, Dylan Anderson
National title odds via Betfred Sportsbook: +6000
There were two only real downsides to the 2021-2022 dream season in Tucson.
One, a team that was good enough to win it all, didn't.
Two, when you with that much, with that much flair, people start to take notice. Including the NBA.
Now to be clear, it was always presumed that 2022 would be Mathurin's final season in Tucson. But after a year in which Koloko averaged 12 points, 7.5 rebounds and nearly three blocks, earning first team All-Pac 12 honors and the league's Defensive Player of the Year award, he too went pro. And after testing the draft waters in late April, Terry blew draft evaluators away and decided to stay in the draft. All three ended up going in the first 35 selections of the draft.
Still, despite losing those three, as well as key reserve guard Justin Kier, the cupboard is hardly bare for Year 2 under Lloyd.
For the Wildcats, the 2022-2023 campaign it all starts with the returnees. While he might have limited NBA upside, the 6-3 Kriisa is an elite college guard, and showed it last year, averaging just under 10 points and five assists per game. And while he struggled late, Tubelis was in fact, an All-Pac forward who averaged just under 14 points and a little over six rebounds per game.
The question becomes what's around them. And for the Wildcats to continue to compete at the top of the Pac-12, it will be up to a couple of role players last year to step up. And for a blend of transfers and freshmen to take the team to the next level.
On top of Kriisa and Tubelis, it's worth noting that Ballo carved out a nice little niche for himself as Koloko's back-up at the center spot. He genuinely gave the Wildcats good minutes off the bench, even recording a double-double at Arizona State in the middle of the season. Now in 2022-2023, without much frontcourt depth behind him, he'll be asked to take on the bulk of the minutes at the center position. The other key returnee will be Swedish guard Pelle Larsson, a 6'5 Swiss army knife who can do a little bit of everything, but will be called on to do it all more consistently this season. French guard Adama Bal showed flashes late in the season as well.
In terms of the rest of the roster, well, like essentially every team in college basketball, Arizona hit the transfer portal, and came out with a few key pieces who could, and will be needed, to have immediate impact.
The name that you need to know here is Texas transfer Courtney Ramey. While the numbers from a season ago (9.4 points, 1.6 assists per game) don't blow you away, it's worth noting that he was playing for a different coaching staff last season than he did his first three years in Austin. In his final season under Shaka Smart in 2021, Ramey was one of college basketball's best combo guards, averaging 12 points, with nearly four assists per game, all while shooting 41 percent from three. He should be the perfect playmaker to play alongside Kriisa in the backcourt.
A second transfer, Cedric Henderson Jr. comes by way of Campbell after averaging 14 points per game for the Fightin' Camels a season ago. He should fill Kier's spot as the first guard off the bench.
Finally, what will be most interesting to monitor for the Wildcats this year, is what kind of contributions they get from the four freshmen they enrolled.
It's well-known that Lloyd made his name as Gonzaga's lead international recruiter, and he brought in two Europeans who could compete for immediate playing time. Filip Borovicanin is a skilled, 6'8 forward who should compete for immediate playing time on the wing and in the frontcourt, while Henri Veesaar was labeled by ESPN as potentially the top international prospect to commit to play college basketball this year.
Finally, it's worth noting that five-star class of 2023 guard Kylan Boswell announced late in the summer that he would reclassify and enroll at Arizona this fall.
He is coming off a foot injury and has elected to rehab in Tucson, although it's uncertain how much he'll be available this season.
Like so many teams, we'll find out plenty about Arizona early, as the Wildcats have a challenging out of conference schedule.
After a few mid-major programs to open the slate, Arizona immediately gets thrown into the fire Thanksgiving week, as they head to Hawaii, to play in a loaded Maui Invitational field. They'll open with a Cincinnati team that is good enough to make the NCAA Tournament this season, then will play either San Diego State or Ohio State in the next round. The Aztecs are a legitimate Top 15 team and a Final Four contender, while Ohio State should once again be in the NCAA Tourney picture. The other half of the bracket is just as loaded, with projected preseason Top 10 teams Arkansas and Creighton, as well as Texas Tech and Louisville.
There's no rest for the weary, as immediately after returning from Hawaii, the Wildcats jump into Pac-12 play, with games at Utah and Cal at home.
Those two games are a precursor to what will be a busy December with two marquee games. The first will come in Las Vegas in a heavily hyped game against Big Ten favorites, Indiana. The game will be the first time ever that FOX broadcasts a regular season college basketball game in primetime.
Later in the month will be a return trip from the Tennessee team that handed the Wildcats their first loss of the season a year ago. Tennessee should be ranked in the Top 15 to start the season nationally.
When you factor in Maui, the Indiana and Tennessee games, the Wildcats will be tested early. And that's a good thing, because the Pac-12 is again looking pretty light in 2022-2023.
UCLA is a legitimate Top 5 team heading into the year, USC should once again hover around the Top 25 and Oregon will be interesting.
But with the rest of the league appearing to be down, there are few good wins to be had once league play starts.
What to Expect in 2022-2023
Like we do with all of these previews, we wrap by trying to discuss realistic expectations for the 2022-2023 Arizona Wildcats.
And honestly, it's hard to know.
On the one hand, no one, not even Arizona fans, expect the heroics of last season to be matched. The blend of talent left behind by Miller, combined with Lloyd's style of play, created a powder keg that took college basketball by storm.
It's just hard to see anything resembling that this year.
But, there's a scenario where the Wildcats don't drop nearly as far as you'd expect after losing three Top 35 picks.
Kriisa and Tubelis are established upper-end Pac-12 players, and Ballo and Larsson have proven they can contribute at the highest levels of college basketball. Ramey too has proven he can contribute at the highest levels of the sport, albeit at a different school.
Yet there are plenty of questions that will eventually prove out as to whether this team can go to another level.
First, it's about whether Ballo and Larsson can be more than just role players and emerge into consistent high-level contributors. Each showed flashes last year, and it isn't inconceivable one or both takes a leap.
Beyond that, what about everyone else. Can Bal, go to another level, after showing flashes a season ago? Can Ramey become a 15 to 16 point a game scorer and tap into all of his potential? Oh, and what if one of the European freshmen is better than advertised? If Veesaar really is the best European in college basketball this year, as touted by ESPN, can he be a difference-maker from Day 1?
Finally, do you get anything out of Boswell at all? Lloyd and his staff clearly won't rush him, and it's unlikely that after several months away from basketball he emerges into the high-level star he was in high school this season. But can he be a key role player late in the year?
The good news is, these are all good problems to have, and all questions that can be answered.
The floor of this Arizona team is still pretty high - probably a second weekend of the NCAA Tournament type team.
But if some of those big questions above start to click, we could be looking at one of the biggest surprises in all of college basketball.
Read Other Previews Here:
No. 30 - Memphis Tigers
No. 29 - Illinois Fighting Illini
No. 28 - Dayton Flyers
No. 27 - Wyoming Cowboys
No. 26 - Xavier Musketeers
No. 25 - Michigan State Spartans
No. 24 - Alabama Crimson Tide
No. 23 - Texas Tech Red Raiders
Follow Aaron on Twitter - @Aaron_Torres