Arizona’s Oumar Ballo is hot, Villanova is toast and Arkansas’ Nick Smith Jr. is coming back

Arizona lost three underclassmen to the NBA Draft from the team that earned a No. 1 seed last season, so it was imperative that the Wildcats add quality players to the mix. That mission looked pretty well accomplished Wednesday, when Oumar Ballo, a 7-foot junior center from Mali, had 30 points (on 14 of 17 shooting) and 13 rebounds to lead Arizona to an 81-79 win over Creighton for the championship of the Maui Invitational.

Ballo, who was named MVP of the tournament, is technically a returning veteran, but he sure looks like a brand-new player. He averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in 15.2 minutes last season, yet he was dominant against the No. 10 Bluejays while posting his third double-double of the season. Ballo leads the Wildcats in rebounding (10.0 per game), ranks second in scoring (19.0), and is converting 76.8 percent of his field goal attempts.

In many cases, that kind of improvement is considered extraordinary. In this program, it is by design. “At Arizona, guys get better,” Ballo told me by phone on Saturday. “If you look at our team from the end of last season, where we are at right now is so much different. I can’t wait to see where we’re going to be in the next three or four months.”

For all the attention given to recruiting rankings and transfers, the need to help returning players improve remains paramount, and it has fueled Arizona’s early success. All head coaches place a high priority on player development, but for the Wildcats’ second-year coach Tommy Lloyd, it is deeply ingrained in his DNA. During two decades as Mark Few’s assistant, Lloyd was instrumental in building Gonzaga into a national powerhouse, despite not being able to bring in five-star recruits with regularity. “That’s how we got that program started, by developing players and building them up year to year,” Lloyd told me. “I know everyone wants a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans, but if you look at the return on investment on those guys, a lot of times it’s not as big as developing players. I’m always going to hedge my bet on recruiting with player development. That doesn’t mean we don’t recruit good players. We just try to get the ones that fit.”

After Lloyd got hired in April 2021, he put together his coaching staff with that formula in mind. Instead of looking for hotshot recruiters, Lloyd brought in Steve Robinson, who spent seven years as a head coach at Tulsa and Florida State and 26 as an assistant to Roy Williams at Kansas and North Carolina, and Riccardo Fois, an Italian native who spent two years as a player development coach with the Phoenix Suns. Lloyd also retained Jack Murphy, who had come to Arizona in 2019 after spending seven as the head coach at Northern Arizona. That has forced Lloyd to spend more time on recruiting, but the tradeoff is worth it. “I wanted to hire rock solid dudes who are going to be great with the players we had on campus every single day,” Lloyd says. “Those guys usually stay in one place a long time.”

The culture has done wonders for Ballo. After playing high school basketball in Spain and then at the NBA Academy in Mexico City, Ballo signed with Gonzaga and sat out his first season as an academic redshirt. He averaged just 6.3 minutes as a redshirt freshman and decided to join Lloyd in Tucson. When last season’s starting center, Christian Koloko, left for the NBA, Ballo knew he would have an opportunity to become a permanent starter. He trained over the summer with the Mali national team but also spent plenty of time in Tucson, where he hit the weights to prepare his body for the physical rigors ahead. Lloyd and his staff also worked with Ballo on developing his touch around the basket, encouraging him to stop trying to dunk everything. “I never spent that much time in the weight room my whole life,” Ballo says. “I needed to figure out what I can be really good at, instead of trying to be good at everything.”

Lloyd and his staff have had the same results with Arizona’s other returnees. For 6-3 junior point guard Kerr Kriisa, the emphasis was on expanding his repertoire beyond the 3-point shot, which accounted for a whopping 83.9 percent of his attempts during his first two seasons. Kriisa was resistant to the idea at first — “I’m like, really? You can’t add things to your game? You’re a finished product right now?” Lloyd says — but he eventually bought in. In three games in Maui, Kriisa had more 2-point makes (nine) than 3s (seven), and he closed out the Creighton game with a late floater and a beautiful drive and wraparound dish to Ballo that put Arizona up 79-72 with 2:21 to play. Junior guard Pelle Larsson is learning to play at a better pace, and 6-11 junior forward Azuolas Tubelis has been focusing on sustaining his effort.

Lloyd signed four talented freshmen, but they are undeveloped, so he supplemented his roster with a pair of older transfers: Courtney Ramey, a 6-3 super senior from Texas who had 21 points in the semifinal win over San Diego State, and Cedric Henderson, a 6-6 grad transfer who developed a high basketball IQ while playing in a Princeton-style offense at Campbell. “All those new guys are going to make a huge jump in the next couple of months as they get used to our system,” he says. “That’s the way we look at it. If everyone gets better individually, it really helps the group.”

Keep your eyes on Tucson, folks. We’ve got a developing story here.

Other Hoop Thoughts

• We knew it wouldn’t be easy following Jay Wright at Villanova, but it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats getting off to a worse start in Kyle Neptune’s first season. Villanova had a rough time at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, where it lost all three games, including by 12 to Portland and by seven to an Oregon squad that was down to six scholarship players. Throw in losses to Michigan State and Temple, and this squad is 2-5.

There’s no single reason for the debacle, but it has been startling to see Villanova get negligible production from its point guards, the position that has defined this program for so long. Chris Arcidiacono, the senior starter, is averaging 3.7 points and 2.2 assists, and the backup, freshman Mark Armstrong, has had two assists all season. True, the Wildcats were depending on five-star freshman Cam Whitmore, a 6-7 wing who has not played yet because of thumb surgery and should be back soon, and they are hoping to get 6-4 senior Justin Moore back from his Achilles injury later this season. And yes, it’s still November. But it will soon be December, and as Yogi Berra used to say, it’s getting late early around here. Villanova has a lot of work to do if it’s going to avoid missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the second time since 2004.


Hamilton: Villanova is just not Villanova right now

• After several weeks of very little news — and none of it good — it appears that Arkansas freshman forward Nick Smith Jr. is finally ready to make his season debut. The No. 3-ranked recruit in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, Smith has been withheld from competition for what is being described as “right knee management.” But he finally started doing small group workouts after the Razorbacks got back from the Maui Invitational, and if everything checks out, he could play Monday night in Arkansas’ home game against Troy. If he doesn’t play Monday, he’ll almost certainly play on Saturday against San Jose State. That’s the hope and expectation in Fayetteville at the moment. Meanwhile, Smith’s classmate, Anthony Black, has been absolutely stellar (he averaged 22.3 points and 4.3 assists during three games in Maui), and Eric Musselman is getting lots of pop from transfers Ricky Council IV (Wichita State) and Trevon Brazile (Missouri). Throw in arguably the nation’s top freshman, and you’ve got a very, very potent squad.

Ohio State’s Justice Sueing returned to his pre-injury form in Maui. (Darryl Oumi / Getty Images)

• Speaking of Maui, there may not have been a happier player in that tournament than Justice Sueing, Ohio State’s 6-7 super senior forward who scored a career-high 33 points in Wednesday’s win over Texas Tech. Through six games he is averaging 14.5 points and 4.8 rebounds for the 5-1 Buckeyes. Sueing missed all of last season because of a hernia injury. He had surgery in the spring and missed most of the summer while he recovered. Not only is he back to playing the way he did before he got hurt, but Sueing is a native of Honolulu, and his mother, Jennifer Le’i, was able to watch him play in person for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic. “She was full of smiles, man,” Sueing told me by phone on Sunday. “I’ve been 100 percent physically for a couple of months, but it’s been difficult trying to get past that mental block. I’m finally at the point where I’m not even thinking about it. I’m just out there hooping, and it feels great.”

• TCU got its biggest win of the season on Saturday, when it knocked off No. 25 Iowa, 79-66, at the Emerald Coast Classic in Florida. Even better, that was the team’s sixth game, which means that Damion Baugh can finally play. A 6-4 senior guard who was the team’s second-leading scorer last season, Baugh had to serve a six-game suspension because he signed with a non-NCAA certified agent when he tested the NBA Draft waters last spring. TCU’s best player, Mike Miles Jr., is back from a two-game absence from a left foot injury, and another starter, 6-7 senior forward Emanuel Miller, has missed the last two games with a back injury but should be healthy again soon. The Horned Frogs entered the season ranked 14th in the preseason AP poll, their highest spot ever, but they fell out of the rankings after they lost by one to Northwestern State sans Miles. Once TCU gets to full strength, it will be well-positioned to fulfill the considerable preseason hype.

• On the other hand, Dayton’s once-promising season has gone off the rails in a hurry. The Flyers were ranked in the AP’s preseason poll for just the third time ever, but they lost all three of their games at the Battle 4 Atlantis to drop to 3-4. The last was an overtime loss to BYU after Dayton led the Cougars by 23 points late in the first half. It’s not even December and the Flyers have all but played their way out of contention for an at-large bid. To make matters worse, the starting backcourt of Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith had to be helped off the court with injuries in the second half. No word yet on how long they’ll be out.

• Much will be said and written about Zach Edey, Purdue’s All-America giant, but I want to reiterate an important point I’ve made before about the Big Maple. Because he grew up in Canada, Edey didn’t start playing basketball until he was a sophomore in high school. Before that, it was all baseball and hockey. Matt Painter once told me that as part of his evaluation of Edey, he watched video of him pitching because he wanted to see how coordinated Edey looked while bending over. By playing multiple sports, Edey was able to develop his body and his motor skills, so by the time he was ready to focus on basketball, he was primed for success. I can’t help but believe that if a tall kid like Edey grew up in the U.S., he would have likely played basketball year-round to the exclusion of all other sports, which would have put a lot of stress on his knees and hips and kept his muscles from developing in a balanced way. Keep that in mind, fellow American sports parents.

• There are 20 remaining unbeaten teams, and four are being led by first-year head coaches. Kevin Willard’s 6-0 start at Maryland has gotten the most notice, but perfection has also been attained thus far by Dennis Gates at Missouri (7-0), Chris Jans at Mississippi State (6-0), and Jerome Tang at Kansas State (6-0). Jans’ team has wins over Marquette and Utah at the Fort Myers Tip-Off. I mention this because in a survey of writers at The Athletic, I cited Jans as the “most curious” hire of the cycle, and I’m happy to see I was wrong. The Bulldogs aren’t pretty to watch, but they rank No. 6 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per, and they’ve held all but two of their opponents under 50 points. Going to Stark Vegas will be no fun for SEC teams this winter.

• I visited Berkeley last month to see if I could detect some life going into Mark Fox’s fourth season at Cal. Alas, the Bears are mostly dead, thanks to an 0-7 start (not a typo) that includes home losses to UC Davis, Southern and Texas State. Things won’t get any easier for the Bears this week as they open Pac-12 play with games against USC and at Arizona. Fox is a great guy and a very well-respected coach, but it’s hard to see him surviving unless the team’s fortunes turn around real hard and real fast.

Mid-Major Top 10

1. San Diego State (4-2). The Aztecs competed well in Maui, beating Ohio State by 11 and then losing to Arizona (by 17) and Arkansas (by four in overtime). Last week: 1

2. Utah State (5-0). The Aggies got their best win of the season in Logan Tuesday night, when they beat Oral Roberts behind a career-high 30 points from 6-1 junior guard Steven Ashworth. They play at San Francisco on Sunday. LW: 5

3. Drake (6-0). The Bulldogs knocked off previously undefeated Louisiana on Saturday, 76-64. Sophomore Tucker DeVries has scored 21 or more points in five of Drake’s first six games. LW: 6

4. Saint Louis (5-2). The Billikens put up a good fight at Auburn Sunday before losing, 65-60, but they still have wins over Murray State, Memphis and Providence. LW: 4

5. Saint Mary’s (6-1). The Gaels suffered their first loss of the season on Thursday at the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, falling to Washington, 68-64, in overtime. They’ve got a tough one coming up on Saturday against Houston in Fort Worth. LW: 3

6. UNLV (7-0). Kevin Kruger’s club makes its first appearance in the Mid-Major Top 10 thanks to an undefeated start that includes wins over Dayton (home) and Minnesota (neutral). LW: Not ranked

7. UAB (5-1). The Blazers beat Georgia, 87-73, on Tuesday in Daytona Beach, their first win over an SEC team since 2010. Senior guard Jordan “Jelly” Walker led the way as usual, finishing with 30 points, five assists, five steals and four rebounds. LW: NR

8. Charleston (6-1). The Cougars’ impressive start includes wins over Richmond, Davidson, Colorado State, Virginia Tech and Kent State. LW: NR

9. Kent State (5-2). The Golden Flashes lost twice last week, but one was by a bucket to Charleston, and the other was at Houston, where they gave the Cougars all they could handle before falling, 49-44. LW: NR

10. Sam Houston State (6-0). The Bearkats’ undefeated start includes road wins at Oklahoma and Utah. They are ranked No. 64 on LW: NR

Dropped out: Dayton (2), Toledo (7), Tulane (8), Towson (9), Hofstra (10)

Armaan Franklin is leading Virginia at 42.3 percent shooting from 3. (Geoff Burke / USA Today)

Six games this week I’m psyched to see

Virginia at Michigan, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN. The Cavaliers ranked 13th in the ACC last season in 3-point shooting at 32.1 percent, but they are making 44.8 percent so far this season, which is No. 6 in the country. That helped propel them to wins over Baylor and Illinois in Las Vegas, but this is their first true road game. Michigan, on the other hand, has been struggling from behind the arc (31.8 percent). Virginia has both the scheme and the personnel to crowd Michigan center Hunter Dickinson, so he will need some help from the perimeter corps to open things up.



A ‘little joy’ for Virginia as it continues to mourn

Ohio State at Duke, Wednesday, 7:15 p.m., ESPN. The Blue Devils couldn’t contain Purdue center Zach Edey (who can?) on Sunday, but they have also had a hard time making 3-point shots. They are sinking just 29.1 percent from behind the arc this season and made 2 of 19 against the Boilermakers. The Buckeyes have a lot of new players but had a pretty good showing at the Maui Invitational, where they lost to San Diego State and then beat Cincinnati and Texas Tech. Ohio State made all 18 free-throw shots in the win over the Red Raiders and is making 80.6 percent on the season, which ranks 14th nationally.

North Carolina at Indiana, Wednesday, 9:15 p.m., ESPN. The Tar Heels are no longer ranked No. 1, but this is still going to be the biggest game in Assembly Hall in a long, long time. The Hoosiers are undefeated, but they only have one win over a team ranked in the top 250 at, a two-point win at Xavier on Nov. 18. The matchup to watch is in the post between a pair of All-America candidates (North Carolina’s Armando Bacot and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis), but it will be interesting to see whether Hoosier sophomore guard Tamar Bates can build off his career-high 22-point performance against Jackson State.

Creighton at Texas, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN. This is the marquee matchup of the Big 12-Big East Battle, and it should provide lots of fireworks inside Texas’ brand new Moody Center. We knew this Creighton team was offensively potent, but the Bluejays showed their competitive mettle in knocking off Texas Tech and Arkansas at the Maui Invitational and then staging a comeback from nine points down with 2:20 to play before losing to Arizona, 81-79, in the final. They will need that toughness against an undefeated Longhorns squad that put the collar on Gonzaga’s offense back on Nov. 16.

Gonzaga vs. Baylor in Sioux Falls, S.D., Friday, 8 p.m., Peacock. Gonzaga has been exposed for its lack of quickness on the perimeter, so Baylor is just about the last team the Zags want to play. The Bears rank third in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency on, and though they don’t score in the post as well as Gonzaga, they do have several interior defenders they can rotate on Drew Timme. Baylor could use a breakout game from Jalen Bridges, the 6-7 junior transfer from West Virginia who hasn’t made a 3-pointer in any of his last three games.

Illinois at Maryland, Friday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network. For a program that hasn’t had much to cheer about lately, the Terrapins’ 6-0 start is worth celebrating. Their top three players are Mark Turgeon holdovers, but first-year coach Kevin Willard is getting a lot of mileage out of a pair of transfers, senior guards Jahmir Young (Charlotte) and Donald Carey (Georgetown). Brad Underwood also brought in a bunch of transfers — most notably senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech, who is averaging 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists — but the Illini are also relying heavily on a quartet of freshman guards who will need to play like veterans in their first true road game.

(Top photo of Oumar Ballo: Darryl Oumi / Getty Images)

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