Arizona Basketball: Thoughts on what went wrong in the 2023 NCAA Tournament

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 16: Head coach Tommy Lloyd of the Arizona Wildcats reacts against the Princeton Tigers during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Golden 1 Center on March 16, 2023 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 16: Head coach Tommy Lloyd of the Arizona Wildcats reacts against the Princeton Tigers during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Golden 1 Center on March 16, 2023 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Arizona Basketball, a No. 2 seed, failed to make it past the first round in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, leaving only six perfect brackets after their loss to No. 15 Princeton.

How’s everyone feeling? Kinda dead inside? Yeah, us too.

The only way for Princeton to make it into the NCAA Tournament this year was to win the Ivy League Championship, which they did by beating Yale 74-65. That gave Princeton the edge when playing a Top-10 ranked Arizona Basketball who already had a place in the tournament.

Why you ask? Because they came in hungry, had something to prove, and were living a dream. They weren’t taking the moment for granted. They were locked in.

The Pac-12 Tournament seemed to elicit more fire and enthusiasm from this year’s Wildcats than the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps it was because they were facing a rival? Perhaps because the majority of the players did not grow up dreaming of participating in the Final Four and winning the NCAA Tournament? Perhaps they were more injured than anyone realized or admitted?

Coach Tommy Lloyd didn’t seem to have the answers in the postgame press conference. He did take some responsibility, saying that his coaching staff wasn’t taking Princeton lightly and that is what they conveyed to the team. He wants to learn from this experience, and he admitted that he is used to being on the winning side of his teams in the past with Gonzaga as implied.

But what is different in the NCAA Tournament?

Programs face new teams they have never played against in the regular season. But that shouldn’t have been a problem since Arizona has competed well in tournaments where this was the case. That said, teams like Princeton have more four/five year seniors who have played with their coach and with each other for several seasons.

Also, every game must be played like it’s the Championship game. This didn’t happen for the Wildcats. Coach Lloyd didn’t throw any curve balls to the Tigers. The Cats didn’t show different defenses, we didn’t see much double teaming, or pressing.

Maybe he should have played players the other team wouldn’t have studied film on? Maybe play the hot hand (Kylan Boswell for example). Basically, be ready to do or change almost anything to throw off the opponent.

If Lloyd and his staff could learn anything, it is that “Surprising your opponent” is everything in the NCAA Tournament. Former Arizona head coach Sean Miller was a pure example of that in his final seasons at Arizona, team was predictable. For example, when Buffalo came out and pressed Arizona from the tip, it threw the team. Miller didn’t have anything up his sleeve to surprise Buffalo.

Coaches have to pay the most attention to the mindset of their players. Who will be the player that pumps up his team? Who wants the win the most? Were the players too confident coming into the game? Humble? Did the players really realize how important the NCAA Tournament is to their fans? Did they understand it would be their legacy? Were they thinking about the NBA too early?

This team lost just like the 2018 team lost to Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament nearly five years and one less day ago. Maybe not reflective in the score (89-68) in 2018, but in the attitude; the team seemed to give up.

Tommy seemed to blame the players for this, but at halftime, what went on in the locker room?

“I just know this: Nothing great in life is achieved without energy and enthusiasm. So you know I mean I think that’s one of those things these players need to take a look in the mirror, and you know that’s controllable by them is their effort and their energy so we can be better there,” explained Lloyd.

Lloyd took some responsibility but pretty much blamed the loss on not getting the foul calls the team is used to getting.

Pounding the ball into the paint and only getting a few whistles, a very low number of shooting fouls were called during the game; only 12 free throw shots were attempted by both teams combined, unheard of.

The Arizona head coach called out the fact the team is used to getting those calls and getting to the line as part of the reason they won games throughout the year. That makes a whole lot of sense, they relied on getting those fouls to get points, and the refs swallowed their whistles.

“Listen, sitting here in my seat, you have an All-American big guy, an All-Conference big guy, you go inside over and over and over and over again, and you shoot seven free throws. I mean I don’t know if they are fouls or not, but I mean they must not have been because they didn’t get called and when the game is reffed like that it makes it tough — when you have the advantage you know either they are really physical and not fouling or their not calling the fouls — It makes it tough, it makes it tough. And when you are advantaged it gets negated a little bit — we didn’t get rewarded with whistles.”

Not getting the whistles seem to have some wear and tear on the team, especially when CBS showed a replay of Oumar Ballo’s taped hand getting slapped by a Tiger and no foul was called.

President Joe Biden picked Arizona to win it all, and probably doesn’t feel good as well. Steve Kerr came off the plane after his game to catch the end of the game and then ripped up his brackets. Rob Gronkowski was surprised when he found out but then gave fans some comfort:

Tommy Lloyd says he has a lot to learn and he is committed to getting the program better. We sure hope so. Still love our Cats, but this was a very hard pill to swallow for everyone involved.

Next. Azoulas Tubelis named Most Outstanding Player in Pac-12 Championship. dark