The Arizona Wildcats are no longer a secret.
After handily beating then-No. 4 Michigan 80-62 on Sunday night, in the process taking the Roman Main Event title in Las Vegas, the UA (5-0) put itself on the national radar after beginning the season far off the map. And it did so in historic fashion.
It’s their 1st AP Top 5 win since 12/30/17 vs #3 Arizona State
It’s their 1st AP Top 5 non conference win since 12/15/12 against #5 Florida
— Greg Mroz (@GregDMroz) November 22, 2021
It was also Arizona’s biggest margin of victory over a top-5 team since beating Michigan State 80-61 in the 2001 Final Four. So yeah, this was a big win.
Big enough to jump the UA to 17th in the latest AP poll, its first ranking since February 2020.
Our full recap of Sunday’s game can be found here. Below is what we learned from Arizona’s run in Vegas, both the convincing victory over the Wolverines and Friday’s hard-fought overtime victory over Wichita State:
Christian Koloko is a Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate
“I told you guys all along, he’s really good.”
Coach Tommy Lloyd said that on Nov. 12, after Koloko went for a then-career high 18 points and 11 rebounds after UT-Rio Grande Valley. Nine days later, matched up against a preseason All-American in Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, Koloko scored 22 and provided the latest example of why preseason polls and lists are meaningless.
“For me it was just another night,” said Koloko, who earned Roman Main Event tournament MVP honors while his mother, who flew in from Cameroon, was in attendance to watch him play for the first time.
No one voted for Koloko to be on the Pac-12’s preseason team—present company included—and that was understandable. His first two seasons provided occasional glimpses of his upside but he had yet to put it all together on a consistent basis.
Now, he has. He’s got a good chance to be Pac-12 Player of the Week after averaging 17 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in three games, but that’s just the start of what he’s capable of this season.
“I think he’s a problem for anybody,” Lloyd said. “For a while the biggest thing was just making sure he believes it. I think he believes it now.”
The defense is why Arizona is 5-0 and is makes it a conference title contender
The UA scored on its first 11 possessions in the second half against Michigan but also had several periods where it went multiple minutes without a basket. It was even worse on Friday against Wichita, when the Wildcats missed 19 of their final 24 shots in the second half.
As explosive as the offense has been—Arizona is averaging 88.8 points per game—it’s not unstoppable, particularly when it shoots its own foot like with the 22 turnovers against Wichita. But the defense, that has been there from the outset.
Michigan never made more than three consecutive shots and its longest scoring run was 4-0. Wichita had some better runs but also shot below 34 percent.
Arizona is allowing only 31.8 percent shooting through five games, with Michigan’s 43.4 percent rate the best of any opponent. Koloko, Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo are protecting the rim, with foes making only 36 percent of their 2s, the second-worst rate in the country.
The UA sits 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.
The 3-point shooting is a concern
Lloyd has said he’s willing to put up with some bad 3-point shots as long as they don’t become too prevalent and they’re not because his team settled. After going 4 of 21 against Michigan and 9 of 48 for the Roman Main Event, Lloyd may be looking to rein in that part of the offense.
The Wildcats are now 41 of 129 from outside, a 31.8 percent clip. The only guys shooting better than 35 percent are Kim Aiken Jr. and Adama Bal, who played a combined 15 minutes in Vegas.
Kerr Kriisa is 14 for 42 after going 3 of 18 over the weekend. His best shots usually come off screens, which is part of the flow of the offense, but far too often Arizona’s taking these shots just because they’re there.
When you’re shooting 60.2 percent on 2-pointers, while also ranking in the top 35 nationally in free throw attempt rate—how often you get to the line—there’s no need to be taking so many 3s. That being said, at some point this season the Wildcats are going to run into a team that forces it to shoot from the perimeter, so this area has to get much better.
Kriisa’s can keep shooting from deep if it continues to do everything else
Kriisa had only 7 points on 3-of-12 shooting, but if that’s all you noticed you’re not paying nearly close enough attempt to how much he impacts Arizona on both ends of the court.
The sophomore guard dished out 7 assists, topping the career high of 6 he had two days earlier, and did not turn the ball over in 29 minutes of play. In 133 minutes this season he’s only given it away four times against 23 assists.
“I thought he ran an amazing floor game today and really controlled that game,” Lloyd said.
And we haven’t mentioned his defense, which doesn’t get enough credit. Against Michigan he had four steals, twice as many as in any other college game, and also drew a pair of charges during a 47-second span in the first half on Sunday.
Throw in that he’s the UA’s emotional leader—he averages about 4.5 fist pumps, floor slaps and screams of exultation per game—and you’ve got someone who’s both a crowd favorite and a true floor general.
Tommy Lloyd can no longer play coy
Lloyd has spent quite a bit of time during press conferences downplaying expectations for his first team, citing the relative youth of the roster as well as the expectations for what the Wildcats could achieve. That’s over now, and Lloyd quickly switched gears after the Michigan game.
“I wasn’t going to make proclamations that we’re going to do this or that, but I knew in my heart what success looks like and I know what good teams look like and I knew we could be good,” he said. “If the secret is out, it’s out.”
Lloyd wasn’t the first choice of most Arizona fans, as well as some notable alumni—remember when Gilbert Arenas declared that “an assistant coach doesn’t have credentials?”—but it’s very unlikely many of those people are still on the fence.
And because of that, the bar for Arizona in 2021-22 has suddenly gone way up.