Wilner Hotline – Arizona Basketball turned to its past to create a model for the future

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Arizona’s rise is more than mere surprise. It’s the awaited return-to-prominence of an elite college basketball program — a rebirth rooted in a complex web of coaching styles and shared histories.

To create a model for future success, the Wildcats dipped into the glory of their past.

To find a catalyst for change, they went with what they knew.

To craft a style of play that would work in the Pac-12, they sought a European influence filtered through an NBA legend, routed through a Tucson icon and tweaked by a rookie coach from eastern Washington.

The level of success Arizona has experienced in Year One under coach Tommy Lloyd has been just this side of stunning, even to those in charge.

“We thought Tommy would do a terrific job,” Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke told the Hotline recently, “but to a certain degree, there’s a level of surprise with how much success we’ve had so quickly.”

The Wildcats (33-3) blasted through the Pac-12 regular season, beat back challenges in the conference tournament, survived an epic on the first weekend of the NCAAs and now stand four victories from an end-game nobody foresaw:

— From becoming the fifth team in the NCAA Tournament’s modern era to claim the championship after being unranked in the AP preseason poll.

— From winning their second national title on the 25th anniversary of the first (25 years and four days, to be exact).

— From ending the Pac-12’s long championship drought in the major sports, which dates to USC’s football title in the 2004 season.

“I’m happy for the conference that Tommy Lloyd happened,” said former UCLA star Don MacLean, an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks.

“Never in a million years did I think they would be this good this fast. But he’s the spark. Arizona gets out from under a cloud” — with the NCAA investigation — “and they have a Coach of the Year finalist. So it’s a double win.

“Tommy gets it. He gets it in recruiting, he knows how to coach, and he gets it with the media. He walked into Arizona with the Gonzaga template.”

Which is, in many regards, the Arizona template — for the process that delivered Lloyd to Arizona last April crisscrosses decades, continents and legendary coaching careers.

It starts, as does so much about Arizona basketball now and forever, with Lute Olson, whose success and playing style had a deep influence on a young coach at a small school 1,500 miles away.

“Living out West, I really enjoyed and became a huge fan of Lute’s teams when I was first getting into coaching,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told the Spokane Spokesman-Review two years ago, following Olson’s death at the age of 85.

“Just the style they played. They played fast, they played loose, they played easy but also as a team.”

Arizona was the model for Gonzaga’s rise decades before Gonzaga became the model for Arizona’s rebirth.

But years before Olson set foot on Tucson turf and began to influence young coaches throughout the region, a connection was made that would help fuse the programs.

Half a continent away, the future Arizona athletic director who would hire Lloyd crossed paths with the man who would build the program that eventually produced Lloyd.

In the late 1970s, Heeke attended East Lansing High School with Dan Monson, who would set Gonzaga on its path to success before turning the program over to Few in 1999.

“I’ve known their program and watched closely as it grew,” Heeke said. “They became the program that moved ahead of their Western peers. They wanted to be like Arizona.

“When we hired Tommy, I’m not sure there was a perfect formula for it. I don’t know that we had this calculus in front of us that would lead to a 30-win season. We felt he was the right person to create the vibe and culture we wanted going forward, and we thought he could win at a high level.

“Gonzaga’s style of play is like what we wanted to do.”

Built on tempo, spacing and ball movement, Gonzaga’s style is similar to the old Arizona style, mixed with an overseas influence.

Few and Lloyd have long been proponents of the European approach to the game — and of foreign-born players. But perhaps the most prominent American advocate of the philosophy is San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose philosophy deeply impacted one of his former players, Steve Kerr.

Once Kerr was named coach of the Golden State Warriors, he established a system that drew from the teachings of Popovich and his former college coach — Olson.

Where did Arizona officials turn for advice during their coaching search last spring? Yep.

Heeke declined to relate the specifics of his conversation with Kerr (or anyone else), but the connection is obvious.

“A lot of people talked about using an up-tempo style, move the ball — and that style resembles what Arizona did under Lute,” Heeke said.

“Tommy allows his players to play the game. He lets them make decisions. He doesn’t call a lot of timeouts. He lets them work through the principles of how he wants to play.”

Just as Kerr steered the Warriors away from the rigid approach used by his predecessor, Mark Jackson, so has Lloyd pushed Arizona’s offense away from the tight controls of his predecessor, Sean Miller.

In each case, the move to the free-flowing style deployed by Olson, Popovich, Few and others helped to unlock the returning talent.

In each case, the agents of change were first-time head coaches who trace their roots through the same web, back through the decades and across the continents.

“I don’t know if there was a magical piece or a key indicator that led us to hire Tommy,” Heeke said. “But it was clear what a great guy he is. He’s just real genuine and down to earth, a straight shooter.

“If we were going to hire an assistant, one name kept coming up through the process: Tommy. We kept moving in that direction. Then it just took off.”

Less than a year later, so did Arizona.

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