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Would Gonzaga’s Playbook Work In A Major Conference? Just Ask Arizona.

Since Gonzaga made a surprise trip to the Elite Eight in 1999, no men’s basketball team on the West Coast — not UCLA, not Arizona — has won more NCAA Tournament games than the tiny Jesuit school1 in Spokane, Washington. Gonzaga has 39 tourney wins in that span, while UCLA has the most in the Pac-12 with 32. Naturally, then, plenty of schools have tried to copy Gonzaga’s blueprint. But coach Mark Few has turned down several job offers, and his loyal lieutenant, Tommy Lloyd, had seemed content to remain Gonzaga’s coach-in-waiting.

The persistent question — what would happen if somebody employed the methods used to fashion Gonzaga into a dynasty at a school with more resources and competition? — seemed destined to go unanswered. But finally, last spring, Arizona lured Lloyd from Gonzaga to build a bigger program in the Bulldogs’ image, and the basketball world got a chance to see just what that would look like.

Nine months later, the result has been a smashing success. Arizona, mired in a three-year tournament drought because of self-imposed penalties and the pandemic,2 is suddenly a buzzsaw, ranked No. 3 in the nation at 16-2. The Wildcats won their first six Pac-12 games by an average of 22.2 points, and though they were soundly defeated by UCLA on Tuesday night, there are only two teams ranked higher in adjusted efficiency:3 the team Lloyd left and the team Lloyd’s old group lost to in the national championship game.

Hiring a sitting assistant to duplicate a school’s strategy isn’t a new phenomenon. What’s striking about Lloyd’s success is not that he turned Arizona around, or that he did it using Gonzaga’s philosophy, but rather how quickly and exactly he was able to mold Arizona into a Gonzaga look-alike.

As the Bulldogs have soared to new heights since 2017,4 two traits have defined them: shooting efficiency and tempo. Few’s team has led the nation in 2-point shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage in three of the past four seasons. This year, Gonzaga is making 78.4 percent of its shots at the rim, ranking second in the country, according to CBB Analytics. And the Bulldogs rank third nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo with 73.5 possessions per game, giving their high-powered offense as many chances as possible to overwhelm the opponent.

What Lloyd has built is an uncanny replica. Arizona and St. John’s are the only teams running their offense as fast as Gonzaga’s — a blistering 14.6 seconds per possession, resulting in an adjusted tempo of 73.8 for the Wildcats. Both teams rank in the nation’s top 30 in transition plays per game, and they’re more lethal on the run than they are in the half-court, with Gonzaga ranking fourth at 1.24 points per trip and Arizona 19th at 1.17. And the Wildcats are within shouting distance of Gonzaga when it comes to shooting percentages: They’re sixth in the country at 57.6 percent from inside the arc and 26th at 72.3 percent from around the rim.

With all of those trends, it’s worth noting again that Lloyd has shaped this team in less than a year. Few and Lloyd coached Gonzaga for almost two decades before they really started to crank up the Bulldogs’ pace: Gonzaga ranked 107th in adjusted tempo in 2017-18, then sped up to 62nd, 35th, seventh and finally third this year. Arizona ranked 198th last season and had not finished in the top 100 since Sean Miller’s first year, 2009-10. Lloyd dialed up the tempo immediately after he arrived. His five starters were all on last year’s team; that group of similar players scored only 1.06 points per trip in transition.

Personnel-wise, Lloyd has also leaned into the techniques that made him one of the country’s most coveted assistants. Both Arizona and Gonzaga this season have two players 6-foot-10 or taller playing more than 55 percent of available minutes.5 And Lloyd was well-known for recruiting players from all over the world to Spokane, primarily in the frontcourt: Rui Hachimura, Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski and Kelly Olynyk, among others. At Arizona, he inherited a handful of international recruits, four of whom are now his four leading scorers; he also brought in Swedish guard Pelle Larsson as a transfer from Utah and Malian center Oumar Ballo from Gonzaga.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metric, Lloyd has improved Arizona by 8.6 points per 100 possessions, a jump that ranks ninth out of 57 coaches to debut at new schools this season. But even that doesn’t tell the full story. Because the Wildcats were decent before Lloyd arrived, they didn’t have as much room for improvement in his first season. The six schools that have made bigger improvements all did so from negative adjusted efficiency ratings in 2020-21 — such as Chicago State, which sat at minus-29.8 last season before rising to minus-18.2.

Gonzaga’s system has brought the Pac-12 its best team since Arizona in 2015, when the Wildcats finished with an adjusted efficiency rating of 32.4. Last season, the Pac-12 took the country by surprise when it put three teams in the Elite Eight and one in the Final Four, vaulting USC from 14th in Pomeroy’s rankings before the tournament to sixth at the end and UCLA from 44th to 13th. And even then, no team from the league finished in the top five. In Arizona, the Pac-12 has a real shot to end a national title drought that dates to 1997.

So was there any way to see this coming, so soon? Inside the Arizona program, maybe. Star point guard Bennedict Mathurin told ESPN that Lloyd “came here with the intention of being a head coach, he knew what type of players we had, the type of players he had been recruiting. He was ready for Arizona.” Lloyd helped build Gonzaga for so long that making a carbon copy felt like second nature. Was it that easy? Probably not, but the Wildcats are making it look that way.

Footnotes

  1. Undergraduate enrollment: roughly 5,000.

  2. The Wildcats likely would have made the Big Dance in 2021, when they self-imposed a postseason ban, and in 2020, when the tournament was canceled.

  3. Through games of Jan. 25.

  4. That year, Gonzaga reached its first of two national title games and earned its first of three No. 1 seeds in five years, not counting a potential top seed in what would have been the 2020 tournament.

  5. Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko for Arizona, Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren for Gonzaga.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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