Temps de lecture : 4 mn 🕗
Arizona lost three underclassmen to the NBA Draft from the team that earned a No. 1 seed last season, so it was imperative that the Wildcats add quality players to the mix. That mission looked pretty well accomplished Wednesday, when Oumar Ballo, a 7-foot junior center from Mali, had 30 points (on 14 of 17 shooting) and 13 rebounds to lead Arizona to an 81-79 win over Creighton for the championship of the Maui Invitational.
Ballo, who was named MVP of the tournament, is technically a returning veteran, but he sure looks like a brand-new player. He averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in 15.2 minutes last season, yet he was dominant against the No. 10 Bluejays while posting his third double-double of the season. Ballo leads the Wildcats in rebounding (10.0 per game), ranks second in scoring (19.0), and is converting 76.8 percent of his field goal attempts.
In many cases, that kind of improvement is considered extraordinary. In this program, it is by design. “At Arizona, guys get better,” Ballo told me by phone on Saturday. “If you look at our team from the end of last season, where we are at right now is so much different. I can't wait to see where we're going to be in the next three or four months.”
For all the attention given to recruiting rankings and transfers, the need to help returning players improve remains paramount, and it has fueled Arizona's early success. All head coaches place a high priority on player development, but for the Wildcats' second-year coach Tommy Lloyd, it is deeply ingrained in his DNA. During two decades as Mark Few's assistant, Lloyd was instrumental in building Gonzaga into a national powerhouse, despite not being able to bring in five-star recruits with regularity. “That's how we got that program started, by developing players and building them up year to year,” Lloyd told me. “I know everyone wants a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans, but if you look at the return on investment on those guys, a lot of times it's not as big as developing players. I'm always going to hedge my bet on recruiting with player development. That doesn't mean we don't recruit good players. We just try to get the ones that fit.”
After Lloyd got hired in April 2021, he put together his coaching staff with that formula in mind. Instead of looking for hotshot recruiters, Lloyd brought in Steve Robinson, who spent seven years as a head coach at Tulsa and Florida State and 26 as an assistant to Roy Williams at Kansas and north carolina, and Riccardo Fois, an Italian native who spent two years as a player development coach with the Phoenix suns. Lloyd also retained Jack Murphy, who had come to Arizona in 2019 after spending seven as the head coach at Northern Arizona. That has forced Lloyd to spend more time on recruiting, but the tradeoff is worth it. “I wanted to hire rock solid dudes who are going to be great with the players we had on campus every single day,” Lloyd says. “Those guys usually stay in one place a long time.”
The culture has done wonders for Ballo. After playing high school basketball in spain and then at the NBA Academy in Mexico City, Ballo signed with Gonzaga and sat out his first season as an academic redshirt. He averaged just 6.3 minutes as a redshirt freshman and decided to join Lloyd in Tucson. When last season's starting center, Christian Koloko, left for the NBA, Ballo knew he would have an opportunity to become a permanent starter. He trained over the summer with the Mali national team but also spent plenty of time in Tucson, where he hit the weights to prepare his body for the physical rigors ahead. Lloyd and his staff also worked with Ballo on developing his touch around the basket, encouraging him to stop trying to dunk everything. “I never spent that much time in the weight room my whole life,” Ballo says. “I needed to figure out what I can be really good at, instead of trying to be good at everything.”
Lloyd and his staff have had the same results with Arizona's other returnees. For 6-3 junior point guard Kerr Kriisa, the emphasis was on expanding his repertoire beyond the 3-point shot, which accounted for a whopping 83.9 percent of his attempts during his first two seasons. Kriisa was resistant to the idea at first — “I'm like, really? You can't add things to your game? You're a finished product right now?” Lloyd says — but he eventually bought in. In three games in Maui, Kriisa had more 2-point makes (nine) than 3s (seven), and he closed out the Creighton game with a late floater and a beautiful drive and wraparound dish to Ballo that put Arizona up 79-72 with 2:21 to play. Junior guard Pelle Larsson is learning to play at a better pace, and 6-11 junior forward Azuolas Tubelis has been focusing on sustaining his effort.
Lloyd signed four talented freshmen, but they are undeveloped, so he supplemented his roster with a pair of older transfers: Courtney Ramey, a 6-3 super senior from Texas who had 21 points in the semifinal win over San Diego State, and Cedric Henderson, a 6-6 grad transfer who developed a high basketball IQ while playing in a Princeton-style offense at Campbell. “All those new guys are going to make a huge jump in the next couple of months as they get used to our system,” he says. “That's the way we look at it. If everyone gets better individually, it really helps the group.”
Keep your eyes on Tucson, folks. We've got a developing story here.
Source: The Athletic.com