At the start of Arizona's annual Red/Blue scrimmage last Sunday, every Wildcats player jogged one-by-one from the tunnel to the center court to a warm ovation from the sold-out McKale Crowd.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 6: Pac-12
• Pac-12 Preview Capsule: Influx of talent should begin league's gradual rise back to respectability
• Ranking the Pac-12's 15 most intriguing non-league games
• Transfer Mark Lyons may be the key to Arizona's Pac-12 title hopes
• Arizona State transfer Kyle Dodd projects the league race
For more news on the Pac-12, visit Rivals.com
To the rest of his teammates, it was probably a fairly innocuous moment. To Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, it had to feel like a fresh start.
Despite averaging 15.5 points per game last season and helping lead the Musketeers to the Sweet 16, Lyons had fallen out of favor at Xavier by last spring.
Perhaps it was Lyons' sometimes questionable shot selection or habit of bickering in practice. Perhaps it was the role Lyons played in instigating the infamous brawl with Cincinnati last December or his inflammatory comments afterward. Regardless, Xavier coach Chris Mack felt strongly enough his leading returning scorer needed a change of scenery that last April he encouraged Lyons to take advantage of the chance to transfer without sitting out a year as a fifth-year senior who already earned his degree.
"The opportunity was brought to my attention by Coach Mack," Lyons said. "It was very unusual, but once he told me about it, I decided to take that and run with it. I definitely didn't feel forced out. They made it clear they wanted me. I just did what I had to do to better myself."
That Lyons left Xavier and rejoined former Musketeers coach Sean Miller at Arizona could turn out to be a good thing for everyone involved.
For the Wildcats, Lyons could turn out to be the impact guard desperately needed after troubled sophomore-to-be Josiah Turner left the program in mid-April. For Lyons, Arizona represents a chance to repair his reputation and distance himself from the brawl that scarred his former program so indelibly.
"He's been a very willing learner and a very good teammate since he got here," Miller said. "I think this is a really healthy change for him. It gives him an opportunity with a clean slate to prove that he can be a good teammate and win."
If Lyons can maintain that good attitude once the season starts, he could provide a huge boost to Arizona's hopes of winning the Pac-12 and making a deep NCAA tournament run. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell will inherit the point guard position a year from now, but the Wildcats would have needed to elevate junior Jordin Mayes into the lineup and convert shooting guard Nick Johnson to point guard had Lyons not been available.
The challenge for Lyons now will be to prove he can transition to point guard after years playing mostly off ball at Xavier alongside Tu Holloway.
Lyons insists it won't be as difficult for him as others think because he grew up as a point guard. It will also help him that he is familiar with Arizona's system and that Miller doesn't envision trying to artificially transform Lyons into a pure pass-first distributor.
"There's going to be a learning curve, but I feel like it's important that we continue to allow him to play to his strengths," Miller said. "Cam Newton as an NFL quarterback may be a lot different than Peyton Manning. You can't make Cam Newton something he's not or Peyton Manning something he's not. You have to figure out what their strengths are."
Lyons has enough strengths as a scorer and perimeter defender that there was no shortage of high-profile programs eager to give him a scholarship when he parted ways with Xavier. Kansas, Kentucky and Arizona were among the first to reach out to Lyons via Jason Smith, his former prep school coach at Brewster Academy.
Lyons was torn between Kentucky and Arizona.
On the one hand, John Calipari's reputation for putting point guards in the NBA appealed to him. On the other hand, he had a strong relationship with Miller and his staff since they were the ones who began recruiting him as a 14-year-old from Upstate New York and coached him as a freshman at Xavier.
"It was a great feeling being wanted by so many great programs," Lyons said. "It was really exciting. It made me feel like a little kid in a candy shop."
The combination of Lyons' trust in Miller and the opportunity to start at point guard eventually put Arizona over the top.
Whereas Lyons would have either played off ball at Kentucky or competed for playing time with Ryan Harrow at point guard, he has a much clearer path to start at point guard for Arizona. Still, it was a tough enough decision that Lyons couldn't bring himself to call Calipari to inform him out of fear the Kentucky coach would talk him out of it.
Many have called Lyons a high-risk, high-reward addition for Arizona, but Miller insists it was "an easy decision."
He was familiar enough with Lyons as a player and a person that he felt comfortable bringing him aboard despite the way his Xavier career ended. Furthermore, he had long been impressed with Lyons' toughness, will to win and ability to elevate his level of play during the biggest games of the season.
"He had always been one of my favorite guys in terms of his competitiveness," Miller said. "The bigger the game, the more ready he was. That's a contagious characteristic. Mark Lyons loves a big game, he thrives under pressure and he's fearless in terms of the way he competes. When someone on your team is like that, it has a great way of spreading."
Lyons has made an effort to get to know his teammates since enrolling at Arizona and to serve as a vocal leader on the floor. His style reminds teammates of MoMo Jones, another New York-born point guard who helped lead the Wildcats to the Elite Eight two years ago before transferring to Iona to be closer to his family.
Although leaving Xavier was difficult for Lyons, he believes coming to Arizona will turn out to be beneficial. He hopes to make a smooth transition to point guard, lead the Wildcats on a deep NCAA tournament run and take advantage of his fresh start.
"The way things ended at Xavier, it definitely gives me a lot of motivation," Lyons said. "It makes me want to end on the right path. Hopefully if we win, everything I want for me will take care of itself."