The Tommy Lloyd era: How we got here

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Caitlin Claypool | The Daily Wildcat

Tommy Lloyd, head coach of the Arizona men's basketball team, speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 29, in McKale Center. The Wildcats will compete at the annual Red-Blue game on Saturday, Oct. 2. 

The story begins after Lute Olson retired before the 2008-09 season, and the Arizona men's basketball team was led by Russ Pennell for the year. Pennell led the Wildcats to a tournament berth and a surprise Sweet 16 appearance. But Pennell was not retained, and the Wildcats instead hired Sean Miller on April 6, 2009. Miller initially turned down the job but changed his mind and accepted the job despite never having visited the campus.

After a forgettable first season where Arizona missed the tournament for the first time in 25 years, Miller had a generational player on his team with Derrick Williams, who led the team in his second season. Williams was the Pac-10 Player of the Year and was a huge reason the Wildcats went on a magical run to the Elite Eight. Williams won their first-round game on a last-second block against Memphis, and then followed it up with a last-second three-point play to beat Texas in their next game. The most memorable game from Williams and that year’s team came in the Sweet 16, when Arizona dominated the defending champions, Duke, and led by 30 points from Williams. The Wildcats had their season end in the Elite Eight against the eventual champion, the University of Connecticut Huskies, by 65-63.

The Wildcats missed the tournament the next season and instead lost in the first round of the NIT. Miller’s recruiting prowess started to rear its head, and Arizona returned to relevance the next season, losing to Ohio State in the Sweet 16 on a last-second loss.

The next season, Miller had the most talent he’s had since arriving in Tucson, and led the Wildcats to a No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll, just the sixth time in the University of Arizona's history that’s happened. They roared to a No. 1 seed in the tournament and played an instant classic against the No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, but lost in overtime. The next season was much of the same, with Arizona having a rematch against Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, but they couldn’t contain Wisconsin’s three-point shooting and lost 85-78.

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The next season, a bunch of new faces on the roster still helped the Wildcats finish third in the Pac-12, but they lost in the first round of the tournament to 11th seeded Wichita State. A roster of NBA talent the next season propelled the Wildcats to a two-seed in the tournament thanks to Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Lauri Markkanen. They would end up getting upset in the Sweet 16 by 11th seeded Xavier, 73-71. 

The next season, Arizona had the highest-ranked recruit in school history sign with Deandre Ayton. Before the season, long-time Miller assistant coach, Emanuel “Book” Richardson, was named in a bribery scandal that was led by the FBI, into an alleged “pay for play” situation playing out in college basketball. A total of nine schools were named in the investigation, and Richardson was one of four assistants initially named and arrested. A now-defunct report by ESPN also came out that alleged Miller was heard on wiretap offering $100,000 for Ayton. Miller decided not to coach a game against Oregon, and after gave a public press conference denying all the allegations. Arizona, as a team, was up and down all year thanks to the constant distractions. They ended up winning the Pac-12 conference and finished as a No. 4 seed in the tournament. The 13th seeded University of Buffalo blew out the Wildcats, and the 2017-18 season mercifully came to an end.

The team had a forgettable season the next year and missed the tournament. The season after, Arizona rode the coattails of three top freshmen with Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji. The true potential of that team was never fully realized because of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of sports all over the world.

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In what would end up being Miller’s final season, Arizona self-imposed a postseason ban due to the NCAA looking into what was going on with former assistant Richardson. The team had an up-and-down season but finished fifth overall in the conference. President Dr. Robert C. Robbins and Athletic Director Dave Heeke decided to still part ways with Miller, due to looming NCAA sanctions and Miller only having one more year on his contract.

Tommy Lloyd was hired on April 14, after Robbins and Heeke had a long search that involved former alumni Damon Stoudamire and Josh Pastner. Lloyd was a longtime assistant under Gonzaga’s Mark Few. He was widely known as the best assistant coach in the country, and many people thought that the only head coaching job that Lloyd would want was to be the successor at Gonzaga. Lloyd was known as the main recruiter for the Zags and helped them get players from all over the world. 

And yet, Arizona came calling and it was an opportunity that Lloyd couldn’t pass up. Even though he’s spent his entire coaching career in the state of Washington, Lloyd has been quoted numerous times that Arizona was the only job he’d leave for because of how much respect both he and Few had for what Olson did when he was at Arizona.


Basketball analyst Jeff Goodman joins Ryan Wohl to discuss: Tommy Lloyd's first season at Arizona, Mathurin's development, fans returning to stands, and more. Follow us on twitter @Wildcathoops Follow Ryan @Ryan__wohl Follow Jeff @GoodmanHoops


Lloyd helped ease the concerns of the current roster and convinced every player to return, except James Akinjo. He also retained Jack Murphy as an assistant and brought in former North Carolina assistant Steve Robinson and Riccardo Fois, who was the Phoenix Suns player development coach. He initially retained Jason Terry too, but he went on to accept a coaching job in the G-League instead. Lloyd also retained Shane Nowell and Kim Aiken Jr.’s commitments. And he helped bring in Oumar Ballo from Gonzaga, Justin Kier from Georgia, Pelle Larsson from Utah and Adama Bal from France. 

What Lloyd does on the court remains to be seen, but his moves so far have been a huge reason for optimism and make Arizona a popular dark horse in the Pac-12.


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