It’s been a very fun and productive start for the Arizona Wildcats under Tommy Lloyd, a 3-0 start in which they’re averaging 94 points per game and outscoring their opponents by 45 per night.
Only one of those foes, North Dakota State, is likely to be in the mix for the NCAA Tournament, whereas the UA could see two tourney teams this weekend in the Roman Main Event at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Arizona opens the 4-team tournament Friday night at 8 p.m. MT against Wichita State, then Sunday night will face either UNLV or No. 4 Michigan.
Here’s what to watch for in these games, which will be Arizona’s first true tests:
Much tougher competition
Lloyd has started his last two postgame press conferences with some variation of “I didn’t expect that” in regard to how badly his team beat UT-Rio Grande Valley and North Dakota State. He expected a physical game against UTRGV, which didn’t manifest, while NDSU played like a team that got into Tucson in the middle of the night after playing at UNLV the night before.
Lloyd expectations of the competition should be much more on point this weekend, starting with Wichita State. The Shockers, 3-0 this season, return three starters and two key reserves from a team that made the NCAA tourney in 2020-21.
A member of the American Athletic Conference, Wichita established itself as a mid-major power from the Missouri Valley Conference during the 2010s when it made seven straight NCAA tourneys from 2012-18 including a trip to the Final Four in 2013.
Along the way the Shockers upset Arizona in the first round of the 2016 tourney, a game probably best remembered for then-UA coach Sean Miller’s overactive sweat glands.
— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) March 18, 2016
Wichita is ranked No. 66 on KenPom.com. UNLV is No. 129 but has started 3-0, including a 2-point win over North Dakota State, while Michigan (2-1) is No. 3 despite falling at home to Seton Hall on Tuesday.
Arizona, ranked 26th, currently has the No. 322 strength of schedule out of 358 Division I teams. That number will improve significantly after this weekend.
At his introductory press conference in April, Lloyd spoke about his love for high-profile nonconference games including those at neutral sites and in tournaments. But he didn’t have much say in his first non-league slate, most of which was already put together by Miller and his staff, though he did swap out an early trip to Gonzaga for a pre-Christmas visit to Tennessee.
Making that change enabled the Wildcats to play their first three games at McKale Center before leaving town for the first time. Whether that turns out to be a good idea remains to be seen, Lloyd said.
“Every year is different, every team is different,” Lloyd said. “With this being my first year it has been a nice transition, and I’ll probably give you a better answer Friday, after the game, on if it was the right thing.”
Scouting the Shockers
Lloyd called Wichita a “tough, blue collar program” that has players who will “fight you.” He expects a physical battle that he believes his team is built for.
He should also prepare for a game that will involve a lot more halfcourt offense, since the Shockers play at one of the slowest paces in the country.
Wichita’s adjusted tempo is 68.7 possessions per 40 minutes, 3.5 fewer than Arizona, and its average possession length on offense (18 seconds) is far longer than the 13.7 seconds the UA averages on offense. Both teams make defensive possessions take longer, but each also gets steals on more than 10 percent of those possessions so there could be room for transition buckets.
The Shockers are averaging only 63 points per game and shoot 39.1 percent from the field so far. Freshman guard Ricky Council IV is the leading scorer, at 12 per game, shooting 46.4 percent overall and 45.5 percent from 3-point range.
Wichita has used 10 players this season, all of whom are averaging double-digits in minutes despite each game being close.