Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd has been around college basketball for a long time.
Before taking the vacant Wildcats job in April of 2021, Lloyd had served as an assistant coach under Mark Few at Gonzaga University. There, he played an instrumental role in building one of the most recognized college basketball programs of the 21st century.
Tennessee basketball head coach Rick Barnes is familiar with Lloyd and Few’s work at Gonzaga, especially from his time as head coach of the University of Texas.
“We scrimmaged every year, once they started allowing you to scrimmage other people,” Barnes said. “Every year our two scrimmages were Davidson and Gonzaga. We met different places. So getting to know Tommy, he certainly had a lot to do with the success at Gonzaga.”
Lloyd hit the ground running once he got to Tuscon, Arizona. The Wildcats are off to their best start since 2014, a perfect 11-0 with wins over Illinois and Michigan. Arizona went from unranked in the preseason to its highest ranking since early 2017.
Conversely, Tennessee has struggled to live up to the hype. The Vols started the season with a No. 18 rank and sit at No. 19 heading into the Christmas break with two losses to Villanova and Texas Tech.
Tennessee is still searching for a signature win – one it can earn Wednesday night at home by besting Lloyd’s Wildcats.
But if it was easy, it would have done it by now. Arizona is one of six undefeated teams in the country for a reason.
“They're playing really good basketball,” Barnes said. “Front line is terrific. The blocks they do around there. I've really enjoyed watching them. What I've watched of them, they play hard. They're not going to beat themselves.”
The signature of the Wildcats’ game is an elite defensive presence, especially in the post. Tennessee, a streaky team shooting from deep, will have trouble doing work in the paint on Arizona, which is rated as the No. 1 two-point defense in the nation per Kenpom.
Arizona opponents are averaging just under 63 points per game, and the Wildcats have yet to allow a team to score over 80 points this season.
“They're doing a little more pressure stuff, I think defensively,” Barnes said. “Changing some things up on the defensive end more than maybe Gonzaga has done in the past.”
“(Lloyd has) added his own touch to it, too.” Barnes added.
Tennessee has had trouble performing at a high enough level in big games this season. The Vols have shot a combined 11-68 from deep in both their losses this year.
The Vols could have a chance to improve those numbers Wednesday night. With all their interior prowess defensively, the Wildcats have struggled, comparatively, to guard the perimeter. Opponents are shooting just over 31% from deep against the Wildcats, ranking 118th in the nation.
One of Tennessee’s best shooters has some experience playing with several members of the Arizona squad.
“For me, it's also going to be a special game,” Vescovi said. “I have two of my former teammates playing for Arizona and then one of their other guys I also played with in a camp (senior guard Justin Kier). So I know some of their guys and it's going to be fun to see them again and play against them."
One of Vescovi’s former teammates is projected first round NBA draft selection Bennedict Mathurin, a 6-foot-6 guard from Montreal, Quebec. Mathurin is one of 8 international players on the Wildcats roster.
Included on that list is Arizona’s second best player and fellow projected first round selection Azuolas Tubelis, who is averaging 16.1 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Mathurin, Tubelis and the rest of the Wildcats face their toughest defensive challenge of the season Wednesday, squaring off against a Tennessee team with the No. 2 rated defense in the country behind only Houston.