Arizona’s rise is more than just a surprise. It is the anticipated return of an elite college basketball program—a rebirth rooted in a complex web of coaching styles and shared history.
In order to create a model for future success, the wildcats plunged into the glory of their past.
To find a catalyst for change, they went with what they knew.
To create a style of play that would work in the Pac-12, he sought a European influence filtered through an NBA legend, routed through a Tucson icon and by a rookie coach from Eastern Washington. Tweaked.
The success that Arizona experienced in Year One under coach Tommy Lloyd has been this side of wonder, even for those in charge.
“We thought Tommy would do a pretty good job,” Arizona athletic director Dave Hecke recently told Hotline, “but to a certain degree, we’re surprised at how much success we’ve had so quickly.”
The Wildcats (33-3) blasted through the Pac-12 regular season, withstood challenges in conference tournaments, survived an epic first weekend of the NCAA, and now took four wins from an end-game, which was called no one had seen:
– From becoming the fifth team in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament to claim the championship after being undefeated in an AP Precision Poll.
— from winning his second national title on the 25th anniversary of the first (25 years and four days, to be exact).
– Ending the Pac-12’s long championship drought in major sports, which dates back to USC’s football title in the 2004 season.
“I’m delighted to have this conference that Tommy Lloyd happened,” said former UCLA star Don McLean, an analyst at Pac-12 Networks.
“Never in a million years did I think they’d be so good. But that’s the spark. Arizona pops out from under a cloud” — with an NCAA probe — “and they have a Coach of the Year finalist. So this is it.” Double victory.
“Tommy gets it. He gets it in recruiting, he knows how to coach, and he gets it with the media. He moved to Arizona with the Gonzaga template.”
Which, in many ways, is the Arizona template—for the process that led Lloyd to Arizona last April, breaking down decades, continents, and great coaching careers.
It begins, as Arizona basketball is about now and forever, with Lute Olson, whose success and playing style had a profound effect on a youth coach at a small school 1,500 miles away.
“While out of West, I really enjoyed and became a huge fan of Lute’s teams,” Gonzaga’s coach Mark Few told the Spokesman Review two years ago after Olsen’s death at the age of 85.
“Just the style they played. They played fast, they played loose, they played easy but also as a team.”
Arizona was the model for Gonzaga’s rise decades before Gonzaga became the model for Arizona’s rebirth.
But years before Olsson set foot on Tucson turf and began influencing youth coaches across the region, a connection was made that would help fuse the programs.
Half a continent away, the future Arizona athletic director who would hire Lloyd crossed paths with the man who would eventually build the program Lloyd would build.
In the late 1970s, Hecke attended East Lansing High School with Dan Monson, which would lead Gonzaga to success, before changing the program to Few in 1999.
“I know his schedule and as it grew, I watched it closely,” Heike said. “They became programs ahead of their Western peers. They wanted to be like Arizona.
“When we hired Tommy, I wasn’t sure there was a right formula for it. I didn’t know if we had this calculus in front of us that would lead to a 30-win season. We realized he was getting that vibrancy and He was the right person to create the culture we wanted to lead, and we thought he could win at a higher level.
“Gonzaga’s style of play is exactly what we wanted to do.”
Built on tempo, spacing, and ball movement, Gonzaga’s style is similar to the old Arizona style, mixed with an exotic influence.
Few and Lloyd has long been a supporter of the European approach to the game – and players of foreign origin. But perhaps the most prominent American advocate of philosophy is San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich, whose philosophy deeply influenced one of his former players, Steve Kerr.
Once Kerr was named to coach the Golden State Warriors, he established a system that drew from the teachings of Popovich and his former college coach—Olson.
Where did Arizona officials turn for advice during their coaching search last spring? Yes.
Hecke declined to divulge the specifics of his conversation with Kerr (or anyone else), but the connection is clear.
“A lot of people talked about using the up-tempo style, moving the ball — and that style is what Arizona did under the lute,” Hecke said.
“Tommy allows his players to play the game. He lets them make decisions. He doesn’t call for too many timeouts. He lets them work through the principles the way he wants to play.”
Just as Kerr shook the Warriors away from the rigid approach used by his predecessor, Mark Jackson, Lloyd moved the Arizona offense away from the tight control of his predecessor, Sean Miller.
In each case, the free-flowing style move deployed by Olsson, Popovich, Few and others helped to unlock the returning talent.
In each case, the agents of change were the first head coaches who trace their roots through the same web, across decades and continents.
“I don’t know if there was a magic piece or any key indicator that prompted us to hire Tommy,” Hecke said. “But it was clear what a great man he is. He’s just the downright real and down to earth, a straight shooter.
“If we were going to hire an assistant, one name kept coming up through the process: Tommy. We kept going in that direction. Then it just flew by.”
Less than a year later, so did Arizona.
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