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Inside Tommy Lloyd’s Instant, International Transformation of Arizona

He had never been a head coach at any level before joining Arizona last year. But it seems his unique path through Spokane and around the world prepared him just fine.

SAN ANTONIO — The night between the first and second-round games of the men’s NCAA tournament in sunny San Diego, Tommy Lloyd carved out some time for dinner. He brought his family and invited the Bakamus brood, from his mentor, Bill, to Bill’s son, Rem, now the director of player development on Lloyd’s coaching staff at Arizona.

In 24 hours, Lloyd’s team would play Texas Christian for a spot in the Sweet 16, hoping to continue a full-season, full-scale revival of a proud program that spent recent years swimming in scandal. As a result, in roughly 36 hours, Lloyd would be named one of four finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award, while becoming only the third head coach in Division I men’s basketball history to take over a program and secure a No. 1 seed in his first year. (The others: Bill Hodges, Indiana State, 1979; Bill Guthridge, North Carolina, ’98. And Lloyd matched them without Larry Bird and Vince Carter, respectively.) But the dinner group didn’t talk much about the Wildcats, their remarkably low expectations before the season, their 33–3 record or even basketball. 

Instead, the diners caught up on life and children and new adventures, while the kids scurried about and another particularly relevant tournament game tipped off on nearby televisions. It featured Gonzaga—of course—against Memphis

Lloyd didn’t just know the Zags well; he loved them, having recruited many of their stars, developing Drew Timme, Andrew Nembhard and the rest. Lloyd had spent two decades in Spokane, his seat on the bench right next to Mark Few, building a power as unlikely as any in the history of college basketball. Last season, the Bulldogs nearly went undefeated, winning every game except the national championship against Baylor. But nine days after a slice of history slipped away in a blowout, Lloyd did what few beyond those close to him expected. He left, for Tucson, having known that night—in Indianapolis, watching Baylor, losing the game he most wanted to win—what lay ahead.

At that dinner, two worlds he had separated all season happened to converge. Of course Lloyd wanted the Zags to win, because of his connections, the deep bonds he had developed, what that place meant to him. Still, perhaps a loss wouldn’t have been that bad, because it would have eliminated a fellow No. 1 seed.

Regardless, as Gonzaga mounted a second-half comeback and Timme embarked on a Timme-like takeover, Lloyd eventually rose from his seat. He did not yet know the winner. But he had film to watch, a critical game to prepare for and a championship to win. “He hasn’t looked back once,” says Bill Bakamus, the sentiment wholly believable with context.

Exhibit A: the Wildcats’ whirlwind 2021—22 season, Lloyd’s first with any team other than Gonzaga since Y2K. It’s also his first season, ever, at any level, as a head coach.

Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd In Feb. 2020

Lloyd worked under Few at Gonzaga for two decades but is now paving his own way In Tucson.

Those who know the 47-year-old Lloyd best often use the same word—loyal—to describe him. But they also draw a clear delineation, noting that while he stayed in Spokane, becoming integral to Gonzaga’s success, turning down overtures, he still desired to one day run his own program. By 2020, the where seemed obvious. Lloyd would succeed Few; it was even laid out in his contract. The question that lingered, year after year, was: when?

His own former coach, Jeff Reinland of Walla Walla Community College, had won an elusive championship of his own in 2017, the same year the Zags advanced to the title game for the first time—and lost. Reinland and Lloyd got to talking about how rare those moments were, triumph and torture separated by nail-thin margins. “You have nothing else to prove,” Lloyd said. “What are you going to do? Retire?” Reinland told him the title itself felt a little anticlimactic—because he is a coach, and his mind drifted instantly to the next season, his next team.

Something else stood out about Lloyd’s question, though. He had proven so much, becoming perhaps the most valuable assistant in all of men’s college basketball. He worked for a perennial contender, made good money, traveled all over the world. His wife, Chanelle, liked to joke about how her husband and Few finished each other’s sentences. Dream job, dream life, all of that. But Lloyd still did have something left to prove. He knew it. When friends lauded his success he told them things such as, “I haven’t won a game yet.” Meaning while in charge of his own program, whether in Spokane or somewhere else. He could seem happy and restless all at once, which spoke to the fiery competitor within. He wanted Gonzaga to win a title. He wanted to become a head coach. Both wants existed in the same space.

Over the years, other programs called. Lloyd always dismissed them for one reason or another as too far from his West Coast roots, too poorly positioned, not the right fit, not Gonzaga. He never even flew somewhere to interview before very recently.

What would it take, he sometimes wondered, to leave behind all that they had built? He wasn’t sure exactly, but some factors were important. He wanted to stay, more or less, on the West Coast. He wanted university support, a rich program history, resources, fit. Given the current state of college basketball in that particular part of the country, his baseline conditions didn’t leave a lot of options, dwindling a list of schools he was considering to Gonzaga, UCLA and Arizona, more or less.

Funnily enough, two days after Baylor’s bludgeoning, the Wildcats fired Sean Miller. Between Miller and Lute Olson, Arizona had been spoiled by wins and titles: 17 conference crowns, 32 NCAA tournament bids, a quartet of Final Four appearances and a national title in 1997. But the Wildcats had dismissed Miller not for his record but for their place in the FBI sting operation that led to a prison stint for former assistant Emmanuel “Book” Richardson on bribery charges. What remained from Arizona’s heyday was scarred, bruised and tarnished. The Wildcats did not lack talent, but the NCAA investigation also was not over. If Lloyd would only leave the comfort of Gonzaga for his “ideal” gig, the UA job didn’t seem to fit.

If others viewed the opening that way, Lloyd himself did not. Arizona was exactly what he wanted: premier but winnable conference, West Coast adjacent, tradition, resources, administrative support. In some ways, he says it represented the “only” job he would have left Gonzaga for. And he did, transforming from pillar assistant to first-time head coach in roughly a week. University officials had assuaged any concerns over the lingering investigation through transparency. They had a plan. It included a roster full of international players—Lloyd’s recruiting specialty—deemed less likely to transfer than their U.S. counterparts, along with, Lloyd says, “being tournament eligible long-term.” In a gracious move, Miller even called to offer tips.

No one from the Bulldogs held Lloyd’s choice against him. The program wasn’t one where everyone spoke of family; it really, actually, without a doubt, was that. Lloyd was and will always be part of the Zags’ story. Just not part of this part.

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Twelve whirlwind months began immediately, with Lloyd playing the role of basketball storm chaser, everything new and chaotic, with voluminous work ahead. Alums such as retired NBA forward Richard Jefferson voiced initial concerns; Jefferson expressed “disappointment” in the hiring process. Most wanted their own guy, someone from the program who understood what it once meant and how much damage the scandal caused.

In some ways, those months mirrored a choice Lloyd made before he joined Gonzaga. He turned down a job with the Bulldogs in 1999, choosing a summer spent backpacking around the world with his wife over a low-level assistant gig he had needed a favor to obtain in the first place. Before the trip, he worked construction for his father, saved every penny he could and took off on what he called “Our Last Hurrah.” The Lloyds visited Europe, Egypt and Zimbabwe. When they ran out of money, a friend had them run a motel in Brisbane, Australia. What struck Chanelle was a contradiction: The son of a carpenter who had decided not to enter the family business did one thing better than anything else. Build.

Lloyd built relationships and pipelines overseas. He built camaraderie with his players, which built buy-in, which built trust, which built formidable teams without elite players and championship contenders with truly elite ones. He would do the same in Arizona, borrowing from Few, Olson and everyone he met along the way. He defined and clarified his vision, met with boosters and embraced being tugged in so many new directions. He lived in a hotel at first, before his family joined him, and while he ate fast food and slept poorly, he loved every second, because those weeks reminded him of the early Gonzaga days, and that mindset was exactly what he needed.

He praised the coaches who came before him, leaning into the history he didn’t know. He deflected credit, adopting a typically measured approach. He projected confidence, even when Wildcats didn’t so much as crack the preseason top 25, reminding his players that their jerseys still read ARIZONA, meaning other teams wouldn’t feel sorry for them.

Among the enticements, there was a lot of love about his roster: a score-at-will guard in Bennedict Mathurin (from Montreal); a shot-swatting, 7'1" center in Christian Koloko (Cameroon); a versatile guard in Dalen Terry (Arizona); a long yet lithe forward in Azuolas Tubelis (Lithuania); and a steady point guard in Kerr Kriisa (Estonia) who was named after UA legend Steve Kerr—and recorded the program’s first triple double in 18 years this season.

Lloyd convinced the final piece he needed over a Zoom call, lobbying a guard from Virginia who had already played for two other programs to transfer in. Justin Kier told Lloyd he wanted nothing more than to win.

He and Lloyd both. The coach ramped up the program’s emphasis on holistic training, all the emphases on mental health and emotional well-being and rounded development that Gonzaga long ago turned into a strength. He taught talented players his version of the Zags’ motion offense—all the critical reads, cuts and reactions. In some ways, like recruiting, coaching and developing, head coaching wasn’t any different from the previous two decades in Assistant Ville. In other ways, like how much more he had to do and was responsible for, the job was bigger, broader and more complex.

Experts tabbed Arizona the fourth-best team in a down Pac-12. But Lloyd believed he knew better, because he could see his new team adopting the philosophy he already knew worked. He tweaked Gonzaga’s approach as he saw fit. His players found out Lloyd liked to crack jokes when not displaying his trademark intensity, that he could be fun, when not drilling the same concepts over and over. Tubelis realized early on that Lloyd was “special,” a notion Gonzaga lifer and longtime Lloyd confidant Adam Morrison explains by saying Lloyd is “demanding but makes you feel like he cares.”

The rest of college basketball would find out soon enough.

Arizona played at a frenetic pace, spread the floor and shared the ball in open space. Six players registered single-game high scores, while the Wildcats collected 20 or more assists 19 times. They played as Gonzaga played, and that made them both formidable and entertaining as hell to watch. Mathurin, with a boost from Lloyd, morphed from a streaky scorer into a do-everything lottery pick, evidenced by the dunk of the tournament, a sky-high slam against TCU. “They’re just playing with so much joy,” Morrison says.

The Wildcats, with a team as tall and versatile as any in the country, finished the season ranked 12th in defensive efficiency and sixth in offensive efficiency. In the KenPom rankings, they sit third overall, behind Gonzaga, naturally, and Houston, coincidentally their opponent in the Sweet 16 on Saturday night.

Along the way, Arizona began to resemble not Gonzaga but Arizona from seasons past. Kerr—the Golden State coach, not the point guard named after him—met with Lloyd midseason to emphasize the tradition, reminding Lloyd to coach as he coached in Spokane. Lloyd was unsatisfied with his team at that point. Angry. “Raise the standard,” Kerr told him.

Arizona won its first 11 games, went undefeated at home, ascended to the No. 2 ranking for the first time since 2017—behind the Zags, naturally—and won both the conference and its tournament. “That just doesn’t happen overnight,” says Bakamus, the mentor. “But, in this case, it has.”

Arizona Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd talks with guard Bennedict Mathurin (0) during the first half against the UCLA Bruins at McKale Center.

Mathurin’s NBA draft stock has shot up this season under Lloyd’s tutelage.

The revival is complete and men’s basketball is back in Tucson. But as Lloyd likes to remind his young and talented Arizona team, the mission is not over.

Beyond Oumar Ballo (Mali), who went with Lloyd to the desert from Gonzaga, none of the Wildcats had ever played in an NCAA tournament game before this March. It’s the head coach who must convince them they can win. Lloyd says he can’t remember the last time he helped coax a team this young this deep into March. He and Kerr talked about that, too, the “beautiful innocence,” Lloyd says, “because it hasn’t been institutionalized yet” and an “ignorance-is-bliss approach.” Before their opening tournament game, Lloyd told his team to “let it rip.”

On Wednesday, at the news conference before the regional semifinals, Lloyd and Mathurin both answered questions about whether Mathurin touched the chest of a TCU cheerleader after Arizona’s overtime win in the second round. Whether intentional or inadvertent, neither said much from atop a stage in San Antonio. But those questions are the ones the head coach must answer, too. Along with any potential discipline. Along with injury updates on Kriisa, the hobbled point guard. Along with everything else, not to mention Gonzaga, the familiar powerhouse that looms on the other side of the bracket.

The last Arizona team to reach the Final Four did so way back in 2001, oddly, the same year that Lloyd joined Few’s coaching staff in Spokane. But the coach, now with a “head” before his title, says this team, in this place, “inspired” him to “coach forever.” Perhaps he will go full Few and spend the next 20 years winning basketball games in the same location.

Houston will play Thursday in front of what could resemble something of a home crowd. Kriisa will still be injured, on some level. The Cougars represent formidable opposition. But these are things a head coach must not only worry about but address and overcome in order to advance. When Reinland visited Washington State to meet with Lloyd before an Arizona away game earlier this season, at first, it seemed surreal, seeing that guy in that place. Then Lloyd walked in and the world returned to normal. “Like, there’s Tommy,” Reinland says, the longtime lieutenant no longer, but also the same dude. That guy, Tommy Lloyd, is now poised to make the same impact with a different job title, the one connoted by the seat he now sits in, the one reserved for the head coach.

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