Third-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd used the offseason to add toughness and defense to his lineup, and the No. 12 Wildcats will show what they have when they open the season against Morgan State on Monday in Tucson, Ariz.
The Wildcats went 28-7 last season, won the Pac-12 tournament championship and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were quickly bounced in the first round by 15th-seeded Princeton.
Lloyd said he wanted to build in some “margin of error” against those kind of postseason upsets.
“And to me, toughness is a way you do that,” he said. “If you want to be competitive in these games, sometimes you have to physically dominate your opponent.”
Arizona lost four of its top six scorers from last year — including leading scorer and rebounder Azuolas Tubelis (19.8, 9.1) — but an infusion of experienced transfers and talented freshmen have made the Wildcats the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, according to a vote of the league’s media.
A daunting nonconference schedule awaits — including games at No. 2 Duke and neutral-sites matchups vs. No. 3 Purdue and No. 4 Michigan State — but first comes Morgan State. The Bears went 15-16 last season, which included a 93-68 loss at Arizona on Dec. 22.
The positional replacement for Tubelis is San Diego State fifth-year senior transfer Keshad Johnson. He won’t be the scorer Tubelis was, but he brings a physical game that helped the rugged Aztecs reach last season’s national championship game.
“He’s a very versatile player,” Lloyd said. “I don’t want to label him as just a defensive player, because I think he’s really good at both sides of the ball. But defensively, he has an ability in the modern game.”
Lloyd notes that Johnson is adept at defensive switches because he can guard the opposing center, the opposing point guard and everything in between.
The Wildcats also added North Carolina fifth-year guard Caleb Love (another former participant in a national title game), who should be a prime scorer. Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley and freshman KJ Lewis will be upgrades to the perimeter defense. Center Oumar Ballo (14.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg) returns as a potential Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, while sophomore Kylan Boswell takes over at point guard.
Arizona’s offense will continue to play at a high pace that Lloyd has established and should be better off the dribble, given the newcomers and the bigger role for Boswell.
“We’re going to play fast; we’re going to move the ball.” Lloyd said. “I’m going to be on the guys to make good decisions with the ball. We’re going to have disciplined shot selection. All the elements are going to be there.”
Morgan State was picked to finish fourth in the MEAC in a preseason conference poll. Top returnees are Will Thomas (8.9 ppg) and Kamron Hobbs (8.4 ppg), who were each selected preseason second-team all-conference. Key newcomers include transfers Wynston Tabbs (East Carolina), Kiran Oliver (New Mexico State) and Myles Thompson (Saint Francis, Pa.).
“I think things are looking up,” said fifth-year coach Kevin Broadus. “I’m proud of the summer we’ve had with these guys.”