When Arizona hired Tommy Lloyd to replace Sean Miller in 2021, it seemed like the perfect choice as the Wildcats already had a solid group of international players. Lloyd earned his reputation recruiting excellent internationals as an assistant at Gonzaga for two decades, including standouts Domantas Sabonis, Filip Petrusev, Przemek Karnowski and many others.
Before Lloyd’s arrival, Arizona featured a team that already had 7-1 center Christian Koloko (Cameroon), 6-11, 245-pound versatile forward Azuolas Tubelis (Lithuania) and Bennedict Mathurin (Haiti/Canada), a 6-6 wing with ball skills and NBA potential.
That international talent was on display in November of 2021 as the Wildcats turned in an impressive performance in the Roman Main Event, easily defeating then number-four-ranked Michigan 80-62 in the tournament championship game before nearly 9,000 fans in Las Vegas. Koloko was named MVP of the event after leading the Wildcats with 22 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots in the decisive matchup.
In the contest, Koloko dominated Michigan’s more heralded center, Hunter Dickinson, holding him to 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Koloko made things tough for Dickinson inside, altering several shots in addition to the aforementioned four swats. Koloko, who might be one of the more improved players in the nation, also showed the ability to guard in space and was effective as the roller off pick & rolls, registering several dunks.
Tubelis added 13 points and eight rebounds in the contest. He played some center at the beginning of last season but with Koloko’s emergence, he’ll be entrenched in the power forward spot in 2021-22. Tubelis showcased his developing skill at the U19 World Championships this past summer where he competed against professional players and led Lithuania to a sixth-place finish by averaging 16.6 points and 8.9 rebounds.
Mathurin also excelled at the U19 World Cup, averaging 16.1 points and 4.0 rebounds for Canada and scoring 30 points or more twice, including 31 in the third-place game win against Serbia. We saw Mathurin in 2019 at the Caribbean Tip-Off Classic when he was playing for NBA Academy Latin America, bringing home the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. At that time, he was 6-4 and his coach, Walter Roese, was trying to get him to play point. Since that time he’s grown two inches and has played as more of a wing, while still retaining solid ball skills. Against Michigan in Las Vegas, Mathurin did most of his damage in the first half, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including two three-pointers, and added five rebounds.
Another international starter featured in Vegas, Kerr Kriisa, a fiery 6-3 guard from Estonia, ran the point for the Wildcats. Kriisa played for the Cats last season before entering the transfer portal. Before he could leave, Coach Lloyd convinced him to return as he would be given a chance to earn the start at the one guard.
Last season Kriisa played mostly off the ball, primarily due to his late arrival after eligibility issues and James Akinjo’s play. With Akinjo transferring to Baylor after the 2020-21 season, the spot was open and Kriisa earned it. Kriisa averaged 5.5 points and 2.4 assists last season, both numbers that he will easily surpass this year. Running the point in Las Vegas, Kriisa’s shot let him down, as he scored just seven points on 3-of-12 shooting, including only 1-of-8 from deep, but he was effective running the offense with seven assists and four steals in almost 30 minutes of play.
For 2021-22, Lloyd has added two other international players via transfer. Pelle Larsson (Sweden), a strong 6-5 guard came over from Utah, and Oumar Ballo (Mali), a 7-0, 260-pound center, followed Lloyd over from Gonzaga. Ballo is in better shape this season and both players should contribute during the year.
Larsson and Ballo were also in the rotation at the Roman Main Event, but neither did much in this game — Larsson added two points in 13 minutes while Ballo generated five rebounds in 11 minutes.
Arizona’s international players were supported in Vegas by Dalen Terry, a 6-7 wing who served as a secondary facilitator. Terry played some point when Kriisa was off the floor and had five assists. He also added 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, with several transition dunks, and five rebounds.
Arizona looked dominant on the floor against Michigan. After a tight opening, the Wildcats gradually pulled away to a 37-29 lead at the half. Their lead quickly advanced to double-digits in the second half as the Wolverines were dominated in all phases of the game in the second frame. Eli Brooks served as the only semi-bright spot for Michigan, scoring 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting and was strong getting to the hoop.
Going only 4-of-21 from three, the Wildcats found effectiveness getting the ball inside, shooting 64 percent on two-point attempts and sported a 54-30 edge in points in the paint. Arizona’s 2021-22 season has started with exceptional team ball movement, averaging 22 assists per contest, and this game was no exception with the Wildcats passing for 23 assists to the Wolverines’ eight. Defensively, the Cats have been holding their opponents to 29 percent shooting to start the year. Michigan shot slightly better at 35.8 percent but it wasn’t good enough to make the game competitive.
The win was Arizona’s fifth straight to open the season and propelled them into the Top 25. The victory served as evidence that the Wildcats look good enough to contend for a Pac-12 title, if not make some noise come March.
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