In an era when college basketball coaches get more offseason practice time with players than ever — and when the NIL-fueled transfer portal delivers drastically different rosters to fans every fall — the first day of preseason practices hardly generates the sort of anticipation it used to.
“It’s kind of lost a little bit of its luster,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Back in the day, October 15 was a date that was burned and fixed in everybody’s mind. Now it’s a little more fluid.”
Now, it’s just six weeks before whenever a team plays its first regular-season game, which translated to Monday at McKale Center. If you can call that a first practice at all: Arizona arguably started its preseason back in July, when it held the first of 10 allowed full-length practices to precede its three-game Mideast exhibition swing.
But the way Lloyd spoke Monday at a preseason McKale Center news conference, none of that mattered. The third-year UA coach said he was excited to get practice started, with the Wildcats’ first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Princeton finally behind him.
Saying it was an “awesome, long six months” of thinking about that finish and looking ahead, Lloyd said he spent the offseason working as hard as he ever has at improving as a coach, spending time with family, his mentors and his own staff.
“Obviously, we’ve had a lot of conversations about that stuff and at the end of the day, we own it,” Lloyd said. “I think the only way you can truly write the next chapter to your story is if you own everything that came before it, and that’s good things and bad things. There’s no excuses.
“It comes down to our culture probably wasn’t strong enough and our effort wasn’t good enough when we needed it most, for whatever reason. My immediate thought after we lost that game was ‘I’ve got to increase our margin for error.’ How do I do that? That’s the mission I’ve been on this offseason.”
During his 25-minute media briefing, Lloyd responded to questions about the offseason, the Wildcats’ exhibition trip, the schedule ahead and several other notable topics.
Some key items:
After going with only a seven-man rotation down the stretch last season — when UA lost four of its last 10 games — Lloyd says the Wildcats are deeper this season than they were in his first two seasons. He spoke highly of all his newcomers, noting that guard Caleb Love has “done a great job fitting in” after leading North Carolina in scoring last season.
“Maybe I sliced the roster a little too thin last year, which can work and certainly has worked for others,” Lloyd said. “I’ve been on teams where it has worked. But maybe last year it kind of showed itself at the end and I felt like I owed it to the program to increase our margin for error. One of the ways was by adding more depth and I’m excited. I think we have great guys that are about the right thing.”
While Lloyd again called the Wildcats’ swing through Israel and the United Arab Emirates a “trip of a lifetime,” he said it didn’t necessarily give them a big edge in preparation due to the increased offseason workouts all teams can hold now. Teams can hold up to eight weeks of skill preparation in the offseason.
“We were able to do our eight weeks and then we had 10 real practices (before the trip) we kind of used as a mini-camp,” Lloyd said. “We kept building on that basketball-wise while we were on our trip and got to play a few games. So you’re maybe a little bit further along, but at the end of the day, that probably doesn’t mean much. Maybe you could overvalue it.”
Arizona is taking advantage of an NCAA rule change by working Rem Bakamus, the Wildcats’ director of player development, and Ken Nakagawa, Arizona’s director of advanced scouting, into its regular practices. Previously, only a team’s head coach and three full-time assistants (plus graduate assistants) were allowed to coach on the floor during regular practices.
They are “kind of sliding into those roles for now and they can be a little extra voice in practice,” Lloyd said. “But they also do a really good job off the court with individual development with the guys. I think that’s a lot where their focus is at this point.”
Lloyd said there was “no truth” to an August report in Israel’s Ynet News that former NBA and Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt would join Arizona as a consultant, though the two have a close relationship.
“Coach Blatt and I are great friends, and maybe someday along those lines, that would be really cool,” Lloyd said. “But at this point, it’s nothing that was ever really been discussed, and definitely wasn’t discussed this summer.
“He’s influenced me a lot, probably more than he knows. He’s kind of been a mentor from afar and as I’ve gotten to know him over the years that’s definitely brought him closer to me. He’s just a really smart guy, and if you want to be good at something, it’s probably a pretty smart thing to go learn from people that are great at it, and he’s great at it.”
Instead of a planned appearance in the Wooden Legacy over Thanksgiving weekend, the Wildcats took an invite to face Michigan State in the Palm Springs area on Thanksgiving Day. That game, and a home game against Texas-Arlington will effectively count as UA’s “multi-team event” for the season, while Lloyd indicated they actually built their own MTE of sorts by also scheduling neutral site games with Purdue (at Indianapolis), Alabama (Phoenix) and Florida Atlantic (Las Vegas).
“If you looked at a field in any neutral tournament where you played Purdue, Alabama, FAU and Michigan State? That would be pretty awesome,” Lloyd said. “We’re just separating those games kind of out a little bit.”
Lloyd said he wanted to play FAU at McKale Center, but a home-and-home deal was not an option, so the initial offer to play the Owls in Las Vegas was what UA accepted.
But in order to satisfy the school’s requirement of 18 home appearances for its season ticket package and budgeting, the Wildcats had to schedule two exhibition games and ask Southern to move its early season game from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to McKale Center. In return, Southern will receive a guaranteed payment that is yet to be disclosed and a promise of a UA appearance at Southern in a future season.
“I’m excited to play Florida Atlantic,” Lloyd said. “Obviously, they had a great run last year and they have a great coach in Dusty May. So to play them in basically a nationally televised game right before Christmas is a great opportunity. In order to do that, we had to get creative and make sure we got the number of home games we needed. We’re thankful that Southern agreed to that.”
While Tucson-based UA fans will have to travel to attend all those neutral-site games, they received a bonus from the Pac-12 when the conference mandated a mid-January matchup between UCLA and Arizona at McKale Center, reversing a planned schedule skip.
“I think the thinking was along the lines of having teams that have taken first and second place the last two years playing only once probably isn’t a great thing for the conference overall. Assuming both of us can hopefully perform like we have the last couple of years, then it’ll be a very impactful game for the analytics. So that’s where that came about.”
Fans can get their first in-person look at this season’s Wildcats in Friday’s Red-Blue Showcase, which will include contests and a scrimmage. Former Wildcats Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye are scheduled to be hosts.
The event is not scheduled to be televised or streamed live. The remaining upper-level seats are $10 including fees, but UA will give out 1,000 free tickets during a rally at El Pueblo Park (Irvington Road and Nogales Highway) at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Lloyd and Spanish-speaking UA players Oumar Ballo, Conrad Martinez and Henri Veesaar are scheduled to attend.
“I don’t know how many programs can get about 15,000 people on a Friday night in September to come out and support their men’s basketball program,” Lloyd said. “I think it shows really well, and I know they’ve got a great event planned. Richard and Channing are going to be kind of running the show, so I’m excited to see how that goes. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some other famous Wildcats who the fans love to make appearances as well.”
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona basketball coach Tommy Lloyd ready for 2023-24 season