No. 17 Arizona, which lost three players to the NBA draft, is looking to reload around a strong junior core as it opens the season Monday night against Nicholls State in Tucson, Ariz.
The Wildcats have returning starters in point guard Kerr Kriisa and power forward Azuolas Tubelis, and two other key juniors — wing Pelle Larsson and center Oumar Ballo — will move into the starting lineup.
Combined with a strong group of newcomers, Arizona looks talented and deep, which is why it was picked to finish second in the Pac-12 behind UCLA in a vote of league media.
Second-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd figures to experiment with new combinations against a Nicholls team that went 21-12 last season and won the 2022 Southland Conference regular-season title.
Lloyd will be without his projected fifth starter. Texas transfer guard Courtney Ramey will miss the first three games due to an NCAA suspension for participating in the Portsmouth Invitational, an NBA draft showcase, in April.
“I’m not a guy that sits around at night and gets out my protractor and a ruler and three different colored pens and says, ‘Well, if you play him 16.4 minutes, he can play,'” Lloyd said. “I don’t do that. I coach off gut. I coach off instinct. I coach off what my eyes are telling me.
“I think we’ve got good, talented young players and I want them to fight for it a little bit, but I’m hopeful they can all help us.”
Ramey’s absence could open more time for sophomore Adama Bal, an 18-year-old still scratching the surface of his ability. He scored 15 points in 15 minutes in a 91-61 exhibition win over Western Oregon on Nov. 1.
Newcomers to watch include Campbell transfer wing Cedric Henderson Jr. and Estonian freshman big man Henri Veesaar.
Nicholls is led by Latrell Jones, who averaged 11.9 points per game last season and was selected preseason first-team all-conference last month. Other key returning players are Pierce Spencer (9.0 ppg) and Manny Littles (8.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg).
The Colonels lost Southland Player of the Year Ty Gordon but hope to continue momentum created by 32-year-old coach Austin Claunch, who is entering his fifth season.
“It’s been an exciting time,” Claunch said. “We want to continue to be that program that is always in contention and that is always competing for championships.”
Lloyd went 17-0 at McKale Center last season and is promising more of the attacking style the Wildcats displayed on both ends last season.
The Wildcats were third nationally in scoring last season (84 points per game), but must replace the 17.7 points per game from lottery pick Bennedict Mathurin. Arizona also shows a lot of energy on defense and a willingness to jump into passing lanes.
“Of course, we’re going to be aggressive defensively,” Lloyd said. “I mean, you saw us play last year, right?
“I’m not going to be conservative. Conservative ain’t my nature. We play an aggressive style no matter who we have. If we were playing zone, we’d play it aggressive. … You can be aggressive and solid. Those two things can go together.”
–Field Level Media