Tommy Lloyd: The great ‘Zona gamble

  For a better grasp on what sort of ground Arizona broke Wednesday with the news that Tommy Lloyd will be the next Wildcat basketball coach, let’s play a game: Among the formidable-to-blueblood Power Six basketball schools, name one that’s hired an assistant coach from another program to its own head position.

  I came up with Roy Williams, an assistant at North Carolina when Kansas tapped him in 1988. A friend volunteered Quin Snyder, a Duke assistant in 1999 when he was named at Missouri.

  And who else, now that Gonzaga assistant Lloyd has negotiated a tangled hiring process and been selected at Arizona?

  (North Carolina, Duke and Gonzaga … the Zags, notwithstanding their forgettable title-game performance against Baylor, are running in some pretty dashing company these days.)

  Going way back, I unearthed the name of Denny Crum, named at Louisville from John Wooden’s staff at UCLA. But that was in 1971, fully half a century ago. Surely there are others, but you get the idea: It’s an exceedingly short list.

(I’m going to take the liberty of excluding Mike Hopkins and Washington, which hasn’t done much business in basketball for more than a decade now, and whose performance the past couple of years wouldn’t be described as formidable.)

  The selection didn’t come without some bloodletting, as a considerable faction of Wildcat basketball alumni and its rabid fan base were hell-bent that Arizona needed to return to the glory days and tell one of Lute Olson’s favorite sons – Damon Stoudamire, Miles Simon, Luke Walton – to come on down. That’s understandable; we gravitate to the familiar, not the unknown, and the familiar in Tucson was the gold standard in the West for a long time in the post-Wooden era.

  Gilbert Arenas, the former U of A standout and loose cannon extraordinaire, went so far as to say Lloyd “doesn’t have credentials” to  take over the program. On an Instagram Live feed with another ex-Wildcat stud, Richard Jefferson, Arenas added, “I don’t even want to say his name because he doesn’t deserve it. You’re an assistant coach, OK. You assist.”

  In other words, welcome to Tucson, Tommy. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call somebody else.

  This is a premier job in college basketball, but it comes pickled with some real variables. First, there’s the uncertainty of what will happen with the NCAA’s Independent Accountability Resolution Process, the group that will rule someday – maybe even before 2043 – on the ominous string of violations the NCAA has toted up on the watch of ousted coach Sean Miller. So Lloyd must both smooth concerns over that outcome with recruits, and at some point, deal with whatever the IARP hands down — and that’s not subject to appeal. Presumably, it helps the school’s case that it finally unseated Miller, even if little kids became grandparents in the time it took Arizona to do it.

  Of course, there’s a flip side to that calculus. When Dan Monson left the Gonzaga job to Mark Few in 1999 for Minnesota, he wrangled extra years on his contract on the assumption it was going to take longer to dig out of a Gopher hole created by some massive NCAA violations.

  A bigger concern might be the atmosphere Lloyd seems destined to encounter in Tucson. He’s a guy who makes friends easily, but every move is going to be dissected, magnified and X-rayed. He’ll have to answer not only to the hypothetical question, “What would Lute have done?” but “What would Damon have done?”

  It appears that the decision came down to Lloyd and Stoudamire. Granted, Stoudamire has a gilded past as a college and NBA player, but his chops as a head coach at Pacific have been burnished by his supporters. He pulled the Tigers out some NCAA muck and eventually went 23-10 in 2019-20. But Pacific was like a lot of WCC programs that rotate the pursuit to be another Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary’s; UOP went 1-3 against those three that year and the winning portfolio was buffed by victories against Stanislaus State, Florida A&M, Pacific Union (which, to be fair, is better than Union Pacific), Coppin State, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Longwood.

  Lloyd? He’s an assistant coach . . . who really wasn’t an assistant coach. At Gonzaga, it’s more of a collaborative effort, and especially in the back half of his 20-year run next to Few, Lloyd had considerable responsibility. He’s best known for his success recruiting Europe, but he also had a strong role in implementing some of Gonzaga’s offensive wrinkles in recent years.

  I think back to the 2016 season, the year HBO imbedded its cameras into Few’s program with “Gonzaga: The March to Madness.” It was an unsteady, fits-and-starts season that had the look of the one that was going to end the program’s then-17-year run of NCAA-tournament appearances. The Zags had just lost a second straight game to Saint Mary’s and were about to take their final regular-season road trip.

  The footage showed Lloyd losing it at practice, pouring out his emotion at a perceived lack of focus and an absence of urgency. It was the kind of thing head coaches do all the time. This was an assistant doing it.

  The Zags would go on to beat BYU to finish a sweep of that trip; to win the WCC tournament and the NCAA bid with a 10-point win over Saint Mary’s; and proceed to the Sweet 16 as an 11 seed.

  At ‘Zona, he should take over a decent-to-promising roster that right now includes freshmen Bennedict Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis, and Miller leaves a couple of recruits who should help. What Lloyd won’t have is something a former Gonzaga operative once told me differentiated that place from all the others where he’d worked: The feeling that everybody on campus, from the president to the custodians, was pulling in the same direction.

  Will Tommy Lloyd succeed at Arizona? Nobody can say with certainty. But I wouldn’t bet against him.