If Arizona Wildcats can bring back bridge of its Sweet 16 squad, the sky's the limit

If Arizona Wildcats can bring back bridge of its Sweet 16 squad, the sky’s the limit

In 2011 the Arizona Wildcats made a surprising run to the Elite 8.

Its top two scorers did not return the following season, while a key figure off the bench also left after running out of eligibility.

A few years later, in 2014, Arizona again made it to the Elite 8. This run was not as much of a surprise, but after the loss the Cats once again saw its top two scorers depart.

Something similar played out in 2015. Another Elite 8 run was followed by key departures, with Arizona saying goodbye to its top four scorers.

It was a couple years later when Arizona was again a contender, and following a Sweet 16 defeat four of the team’s top eight scorers did not return for another try.

The roster turnover did not stop after the next year’s team flamed out in the first round of the dance, as the team’s top five scorers — essentially the starting lineup — all departed Tucson.

While turnover is very much a part of college athletics, it’s fair to say Arizona’s very best teams rarely had a chance to, as the kids say, run it back.

If all goes according to plan, Tommy Lloyd’s second Wildcats team will have that opportunity.

As it stands, Arizona is guaranteed to lose just one player: Justin Kier.

It figures to also see Benn Mathurin depart for the NBA, but after that things get a bit murky. Christian Koloko and Dalen Terry both could — and should — test the NBA waters, but neither figures to be a lottery pick and both could benefit from just one more season in the Old Pueblo.

Otherwise, it seems rather likely the core of the team in Azuoulas Tubelis, Kerr Kriisa, Pelle Larrson and Oumar Ballo will return, as will potential star Adama Bal. Arizona figures to be an attractive destination for recruits and transfers alike, meaning there shouldn’t be much trouble filling any roster spots that may be available.

Arizona is set to have something it hasn’t had in a while, and that is high-level upperclassmen who know the system and each other. Not coincidentally, the teams that go the furthest in the NCAA Tournament tend to feature those kind of players.

This of course is not breaking news, and it’s exactly why the Cats are near the top of everyone’s too-early preseason rankings.

And it’s why starting next season, the pressure is officially on.

Why shouldn’t it be?

His first season was unreal, claiming every championship the team could except for the NCAA Tournament. Postseason honors had a decidedly Wildcat flare, and the season ending did not put a stop to the accolades.

It was enough to make the season a success, even with it ending at least a round earlier than many expected. But that’s in the past, now.

Just like Sean Miller before him, he will soon learn — if he hasn’t already — that surprising success only buys you enough goodwill to get you to the next season. And next season, assuming the roster is largely intact, the expectation is to do better than the Sweet 16.

Is that fair? Maybe not, but it’s reality.

When he accepted the job Lloyd knew all about the high expectations that come with Arizona basketball. He’s spoken often about the subject, noting he embraces it.

There’s little reason to think he won’t succeed, of course. Success this past season was hardly a given, especially with a roster he did not construct. He had to get the players to not only buy into him and stay, but then learn a new system being taught by a first-time head coach.

That Lloyd was able to accomplish what he did says plenty about his ability to not only teach, but lead, and that should serve him well in the coming years as he begins to really put his mark on the program.

It’s led to the silencing of even his most ardent of critics. No longer do you hear of people yearning for Miller, and those who felt the program should have gone in a different direction than the longtime Gonzaga assistant have made nary a peep.

It took one full season, and a little less than a calendar year, for Lloyd to prove he was an excellent choice. He got plenty out of his initial roster, accomplishing more than anyone could have imagined.

And the roster could be even better next season.

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