SAN ANTONIO — Okay, now what?
Arizona’s 2021-22 season came to an end Thursday night in the Sweet 16, a 12-point loss to Houston that put a damper on what had been a tremendous — and tremendously unexpected — run. The Wildcats were picked to finish tied for 4th in the Pac-12 in the preseason, getting the same number of vote points as an Oregon State team that ended up going 3-28, but instead ran away with the league and set a record for most conference wins at 18.
They followed that up with a Pac-12 Tournament title, which led to getting the program’s first No. 1 seed since 2014, and reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.
All with a first-year coach who, despite more than 20 years in the college game, had never been charge of his own team.
“They helped me get Arizona basketball off to a good start in my tenure, and I’ll always be thankful for them,” coach Tommy Lloyd said of his first UA squad. “I think we really built some foundational pieces this year that are really going to serve us well moving forward.”
So, about that moving forward…
Arizona heads into its first full offseason of the Lloyd era knowing it has a lot of great pieces to work with, assuming everyone that’s expected to come back does so. But as Houston showed in holding them to their second-lowest scoring output of the seasonthere’s still work to be done.
First and foremost is setting the roster for next season. There could be minor changes, or quite a few, depending on the decisions of a few players.
Justin Kier is the only scholarship player who is out of eligibility, and his spot will get filled by incoming 7-foot freshman Dylan Anderson. The Wildcats have another scholarship available that they didn’t use in 2021-22, mostly as a precaution in case the NCAA and IARP include scholarship reductions whenever they get around to deciding the UA’s infractions case.
Bennedict Mathurin is very likely to declare for the NBA Draft after scoring the 10th-most points in a season in UA history, though when asked about his future he deflected. “Next thing for me is to get in the gym and get better. Whatever the future has for me has for me. That’s basically it. ”
Could others look at turning pro, or at least testing the waters? Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko were both asked about that after the Houston loss, with Terry saying “we’re not thinking about that right now, we just lost a game” and Koloko following that up with a “same thing.”
It’s not out of the realm of possibility for either to at least get a draft evaluation. Same goes for someone like Azuolas Tubelis, though most scouts will probably just point to the film from the last two games. Lloyd, while commenting on Tubelis’ poor night, added his eagerness to work with the 6-foot-11 Lithuanian on improving his game in the offseason.
“I’m looking forward to taking a little bit of a rest for myself and for him and getting back in the gym with Zu,” Lloyd said. “I think he’s got a huge jump coming in his near future.”
Transfers out are always a possibility, with freshman Shane Nowell the top candidate in that area after logging just 66 minutes in 19 games. He signed with the previous coaching staff, while Adama Bal signed with Lloyd and his crew and figures to play a much bigger role with the team next season.
Arizona figures to have at least one spot to fill, which come from the NCAA transfer portal — former Auburn guard Devan Cambridge has reportedly been contacted by the Wildcats — or from the 2022 recruiting class. Maybe even the 2023 class, as both 5-star point guard Kylan Boswell and 4-star guard KJ Lewis have been rumored to be considering reclassifying to 2022.
Look for Arizona to also try and upgrade its nonconference schedule, which this season ranked 179th out of 358 Division I schools, per KenPom.com. Most of that was inherited from the previous regime, while Lloyd and assistant TJ Benson will seek out some tougher competition.
What’s known at this time is that Arizona is set to host Tennessee in the second half of a home-and-home series, and also has first-week home games against NAU and Southern. It will also play in the Maui Invitational, which includes Arkansas — which beat No. 1 Gonzaga on Thursday in the West Region semifinals — Cincinnati, Creighton, Louisville, Ohio State, San Diego State and Texas Tech.
That would leave the UA with five nonconference slots to fill. Lloyd, at his introductory press conference last April, spoke about how much he loves playing high-profile games outside of the league schedule, so a neutral-site showcase game could be in the works. The rest will probably be at McKale Center, where the fans probably wouldn’t mind less UTRGVs and more NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents.
“I want our fan base to be the best in the country, and I think we have the potential to do that,” Lloyd said. “I look forward to rolling up my sleeves this off-season and getting to work on that.”