TUCSON – Falling far below expectations during the 2022-23 season, immediate change was needed in the Arizona men’s basketball program this offseason.
Before the first full weekend of March Madness was even over last spring, the No. 2 seed Arizona Wildcats went from NCAA tournament favorites to first-round bust, losing to No. 15 seed Princeton in a shocking upset that made waves across college basketball.
Coach Tommy Lloyd knew he had to make key improvements entering his third season at the helm and turned to the transfer portal to welcome three key players who share one common trait that should help the 2023-24 Wildcats: All three players have experienced a deep run in March.
The Wildcats areand ahead of Monday’s season opener against Morgan State and are looking to wash away the bad taste left by that early exit seven months ago with the addition of postseason experience from senior guard Caleb Love, senior center Keshad Johnson and sophomore guard Jaden Bradley.
“They’re (Love and Johnson) great players,” Lloyd said at Arizona’s men’s basketball media day. “I think they’re both very comfortable here and have kind of settled into leadership-type roles.”
Love traveled more than 2,000 miles across the country, leaving his time at North Carolina in the past. He averagedwhile totaling 1,476 points in three years with the Tar Heels.
Maybe most important for the Wildcats, Love played a substantial role in UNC’s victories over UCLA and Duke during a run to the 2022 NCAA Tournament championship. Love scored 30 points against UCLA and 28 points against Duke. His other highlights include a streak of 40 straight free throws made during his freshman year, and 200 career 3-pointers.
Love’s dominance in the regular season and NCAA Tournament showcases his basketball IQ and confidence – two qualities he hopes to bring to the Wildcats.
“I’ve been at the highest of the highs – we’ve played in the National Championship – and lowest of the lowest, as far as not making the tournament,” Love said. “So I feel like my experience and my scoring and playmaking ability (is what I bring to the team).”
Love said he has adapted well to Tucson, where he feels the calmness of the city corresponds to his personality.
“I’ve been able to adjust real well,” Love said. “The guys embraced me from day one, ever since I got here. And it’s been an easy adjustment.”
Love said that Lloyd’s pitch to recruit him was one of the best he heard and ultimately factored into choosing Arizona.
“He (Lloyd) had my best interest at heart,” Love said. “And then obviously coach Rob (assistant coach Steve Robinson). He recruited me out of high school, so his plan and his outlook on how he wanted me to succeed here was one of the best ones.”
Lloyd’s expectations for Love are simply playing the right way and making smart decisions.
“I think he’s practiced the right way. He’s prepared the right way,” Lloyd said. “We’ve had great conversations, and getting under the lights challenges it a little bit. Everything I’ve seen and know about him shows me that that’s going to continue on the same path we’ve been on. I want him to take great shots within our offense. Whatever that distribution ends up being … whether that’s him scoring, driving or passing.
“At Arizona, we play team basketball. We’ve had great individual players here that have played team basketball, and so I think that’s how we’re built. I think that’s how he’s been playing, and that’s how he’s prepared to play. So I expect to see that continued evolution.”
Johnson adds another level of depth to the Wildcats frontcourt. In four seasons at San Diego State, Johnson.
Johnson used his 6-foot-7 height to his advantage in a recent practice to gear up for the season, with teammates yelling “showtime” each time he dunked the ball – which was often.
Johnson said he brings defense, energy and leadership to the team coming off his recent March Madness experience with the Aztecs, who reached the National Championship game in April before falling to UConn. Johnson finished with 14 points, four rebounds and an assist in the 76-59 loss.
“I came in ready with an open mindset,” Johnson said about his arrival in Tucson. “The way coaches teach and the way that the guys are vocal, it’s been an easy progress. The guys are going to keep teaching me throughout the way, and I’m going to just keep learning.”
Bradley departed from Alabama after only one year in Tuscaloosa, where hewhile playing roughly 20 minutes each game. His ability to make plays for his teammates was a strength. He totaled .
His minutes per game fell drastically during the NCAA Tournament from the 16 he posted in the Crimson Tide’s first-round win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, but he witnessed firsthand Johnson & Co. pull off their Sweet 16 win, playing five minutes against San Diego State in the Sweet 16.
With the new additions to the team, the Wildcats returners feel that the adjustment has been smooth. The team chemistry is strong, and the Wildcats share a common goal of holding up Arizona’s second NCAA Tournament championship trophy at the beginning of April, forever erasing the memory of last March.
“With new guys coming here, we’re adding a new, different dynamic to the team,” freshman guard KJ Lewis said. “I think everybody’s focus has been different, everybody’s focus has been better. I think this team is ready to prove a lot of people wrong.”
Arizona has a tough start to the schedule, with non-conference games against Duke, Purdue, Alabama, Florida Atlantic, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but the competitive matches should build experience for March. Overall, Arizona will play 16 regular season games at McKale Center, beginning Monday.
“We face some really good teams early,” Lewis said. “But I think that’s going to help us at the end of the season too as well because we’re playing those good teams that we’re capable of seeing in March. So I think it’s a win and it’s a good thing.”
Love is confident in his team’s ability to win the Pac-12 and a national championship, but he also understands the work starts in the regular-season opener.
“We take it day-by-day, one foot in front of the other,” Love said. “As long as we stick to the plan and continue to get better each and every day, come in here with that chip on our shoulder, I feel like we got it. We got the guys to do it.”
Lloyd often reminds his players that they are competing with each other not against each other. He said the same level at which they push each other is the same level at which they support one another.
Where the newcomers will fit in throughout the season remains to be seen. At this point of the schedule, Lloyd isn’t concerned about who his starting five will be as much as some other coaches. Rather, his focus for now is on each player on the team.
“I know this – to be a great team takes more than five players,” Lloyd said. “So why should I only be worried about those starting five? Why should that be such a big thing?
“I think there’s a strength in numbers. And we have numbers, so I’m doubling down on that strength. I’m not doubling down on five.”