Best team to visit Salt Lake City in quite some time brings new coach Tommy Lloyd of Gonzaga fame, a lofty national ranking, and an eight-game winning streak to Salt Lake City
When Arizona hired longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd last April to replace the fired Sean Miller, BYU fans in the know breathed a little easier, believing that Lloyd was one of the secrets to the Zags’ unparalleled success.
Now the boyish-looking Lloyd is Utah’s problem.
In less than a year, the 47-year-old Lloyd has not only revived a sagging program, he’s directed Arizona (24-2, 14-1) to the top of the Pac-12 standings and a No. 2 ranking in the national polls. Arizona is also No. 2 in the NET rankings, No. 2 in Sagarin, No. 3 in Kenpom, and was projected in the NCAA selection committee’s early reveal last Saturday as the third overall team in the Big Dance and the South Region’s No. 1 seed.
Not coincidentally, Lloyd’s former employer — 23-2 Gonzaga — is No. 1 in the land and No. in the West Region — thereby pushing the Wildcats to a non-West region. They obviously know what they are doing up in Spokane, from head coach Mark Few all the way down.
Utah (11-16, 4-13) plays host to Arizona and national coach of the year candidate Lloyd on Thursday (9 p.m. MST, Fox Sports 1) at the Huntsman Center with at least one thing in common with the Wildcats.
Both squads are on multigame winning streaks. But that’s about where the comparisons end.
Arizona has won eight in a row — its only losses were to then-No. 7 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 25 and 77-73 to then-No. 19 Tennessee in Knoxville on Dec. 22.
Utah has won two in a row, and three of its last five, having snapped a 10-game losing streak (that included an 82-64 loss to Arizona on Jan. 15) with an 84-59 win over Oregon State on Feb. 3.
Utah played without star center Branden Carlson, who averaged 13.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, in that 18-point loss in Tucson and could be without the 7-footer again Thursday. Carlson rolled his ankle late in Utah’s 60-58 win at Cal on Saturday.
Coach Craig Smith said Tuesday in his weekly news conference that Carlson didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday and is day-to-day. He almost certainly will be a game-time decision, just like the last time he sprained his ankle. He turned it against USC on Dec. 1, and played four days later against Cal.
“The good news is there is nothing structurally (damaged) that we are aware of,” Smith said. “He knows how to handle those sorts of things. He has been through it before. … Hopefully that is the same scenario this week.”
Carlson missed the first meeting with Arizona because of an appendectomy.
Guard Marco Anthony, who has been the hottest Ute lately, leading them in rebounding (7.7 rpg.), will probably draw the unenviable defensive assignment of guarding Bennedict Mathurin, the probable Pac-12 Player of the Year. Anthony said the loss in Tucson gave the Utes confidence that they can hang with the best team to visit the Huntsman Center in years.
“Yeah, we had that stretch obviously where we let them get loose in transition, and ultimately let the game get away from us,” Anthony said. “We are going to really lock in on that during practices that we have the remainder of the week to get ready for Thursday.”
Make no mistake, though. Anthony and his teammates learned that day why the Wildcats are running away in the league standings. When they got it rolling they were unstoppable.
“They are a great team,” Anthony said. “I mean, there is (a reason why) they are the No. 2 team in the country. They just do a lot of great things. They really play off each other. They have found success through teamwork and things of that nature. It is going to be a great battle on Thursday.”