Starting this week, the Arizona men’s basketball team will make its 37th appearance in the NCAA Tournament in program history and its second under head coach Tommy Lloyd.
The Wildcats squeaked past UCLA 61-59 on Saturday, March 11, to take home the Pac-12 trophy for a second year in a row. Arizona secured a No. 2 seed in the 2023 NCAA March Madness tournament while playing in the South bracket.
The Wildcats will now face off against Princeton University, the No. 15 seed in the bracket, on Thursday, March 16, at 1:10 p.m. MST.
Lloyd’s 2021 arrival in Tucson has brought back excitement for Arizona men’s basketball. In just his two seasons in the desert so far, the coach has compiled an impressive 61-10 record, a No. 1 seed NCAA Tournament rank in 2022 and a No. 2 seed rank this year while stacking consecutive Pac-12 Tournament championship wins.
These last two seasons have been a far cry from the excitement and letdown cycle of the Sean Miller era, which ended disastrously amidst a scandal.
The Miller era: From consistency to disappointment
The now-head coach of Xavier University was at the helm of Wildcat basketball for 12 years, from 2009-21. Miller led the Wildcats to seven NCAA Tournament appearances, including in his second year. The Wildcats played very consistent tournament basketball under Miller, making six Sweet 16 appearances and three Elite Eight appearances.
With consistency, though, comes a lack of excitement.
Miller’s Wildcats were bounced in the first round twice — 2016 and 2018 — and never appeared in the Final Four or the Championship. They came closest to making it past the Elite Eight in the 2014 Tournament, where the Wildcats fell to the University of Wisconsin 64-63 in overtime.
“I thought both teams played really hard, it could’ve gone either way,” Miller said on the loss that year. “It’s very disappointing when it doesn’t go your way […] . But that's the greatness of the NCAA Tournament, the thrill of victory, and when you lose, it’s like a car crashes. You're done.”
The next season, Arizona’s tournament hopes were once again dashed by Wisconsin, albeit in a more convincing fashion by 85-78. To add salt to the wound, No. 11 Wichita State University sent the No. 6-seeded Wildcats home the season after that in the first round of the 2016 tournament.
The 2017 NCAA Tournament was the last notable one for the Wildcats under Miller. The team made it to the Sweet 16 after defeating the University of North Dakota in the first round and Saint Mary’s University in the second. The team that sent the Wildcats packing was none other than the No. 6-seeded Xavier Musketeers, who reclaimed Miller as their head coach just three years later.
The 2018 tournament was the last time the Wildcats would make an appearance under the guidance of Miller, and it ended unceremoniously. The No. 4 Wildcats were ousted by the No. 13 University at Buffalo in the first round, marking Miller’s last appearance as the head coach of the Wildcats.
Arizona missed the 2019 tournament after finishing 21-11, good for just fifth-best in the Pac-12. The team was not selected to participate in any brackets as a result.
Arizona didn’t appear in the 2020 tournament due to a self-imposed ban for NCAA recruiting violations in 2017. The institution was charged with failure to monitor, and Miller was charged with a lack of head coach control. A former assistant coach pled guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery.
Less than six months after the self-imposed tournament ban was announced, the University of Arizona decided to part ways with Miller on April 7, 2021. Lloyd was named the new head coach just a week later on April 14, 2021, having just appeared in a national championship with Gonzaga University serving as an assistant coach.
“I had a contract to be the next head coach [at Gonzaga],” Lloyd said in his introductory press conference in 2021. “But in my mind and my heart, I knew. [Arizona] is the only place I would ever leave Gonzaga to come.”
The Lloyd era: Newfound promise
Lloyd has quickly earned a soft spot for himself in the hearts of many Wildcat fans, especially after breaking the record for most wins by any head basketball coach in their first two seasons.
Before now, the last time the Wildcats won consecutive Pac-12 Tournament championships was in 1989 and 1990. The recruiting violations under Miller’s staff led to the 2017 and 2018 Pac-12 Tournament titles being vacated.
In his first season as head coach, Lloyd led Arizona to a 31-3 record after the Pac-12 championship. He powered the No. 1-seeded Wildcats into the Sweet 16 with victories over No. 16 Wright State University and No. 9 Texas Christian University. The Wildcats were sent packing after a 72-60 loss to the No. 5 University of Houston.
As Arizona heads into Thursday’s matchup against Princeton with a 28-6 record and a fresh Pac-12 crown, fans are sure to be holding their breath, hoping for continuing victories.
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