What was the Gonzaga men’s basketball team’s toughest loss?
Was it the Sweet 16 defeat at the hands of UCLA in 2006, which famously left All-American forward Adam Morrison in tears?
Was it the national championship game against North Carolina four years ago, when the Zags led with less than two minutes to go?
Was it the title-game loss to Baylor this month, which thwarted what would have been the first undefeated season in men’s hoops since 1976?
Or was it losing assistant coach Tommy Lloyd to Arizona this week?
Option No. 4 on that list may seem out of place to some, but likely not to Gonzaga die-hards. Lloyd has spent the past 20 seasons as an assistant to Zags coach Mark Few, and has made himself indispensable.
Gonzaga is the only school from a mid-major conference to maintain its status as an elite national men’s basketball program for the past decade-plus, and without Lloyd it’s very possible, if not outright probable, that this never would have been the case.
On Wednesday it was announced that Lloyd will replace Sean Miller as the men’s coach at Arizona. This comes several years after he was dubbed the “head coach in waiting” at Gonzaga, where it appeared he would remain for the rest of his career.
You never know how the departure of an assistant will affect his old program or new one (Syracuse seems to be doing fine sans Washington coach Mike Hopkins … and the Huskies are struggling), but Zags fans would be right to worry if this change could impact the program.
For starters, Lloyd may be the best international recruiter in college basketball. He carved out a niche over the past two decades and now is the star of the room whenever he walks into a gym overseas.
Want a list of NBA talent that Lloyd lured to Spokane? There’s Ronny Turiaf, the former West Coast Conference Player of the Year that Lloyd recruited in France. There’s Domantas Sabonis, the two-time NBA All-Star that Lloyd snagged from Lithuania. There’s Rui Hachimura, the former first-team All-American who came over from Japan. There’s fellow former first-team All-American Kelly Olynyk, who came over from Canada, too.
It’s not as though Lloyd hasn’t played a significant role in attracting American standouts such as Morrison, Dan Dickau or Jalen Suggs. But it’s the foreign recruits, from Joel Ayayi to Robert Sacre to Killian Tillie to Przemek Karnowski on which he built his reputation.
As Lloyd told gonzaga.edu before last season: “We have lots of experience with supporting international students. Spokane is a great place to live, but not a hotbed of outstanding high school. we had to fish in waters that weren’t oversaturated with other fishermen. Develop some relationships, develop some trust. It was definitely a commitment we made.”
So what will recruiting be like for the Zags now that Lloyd is gone? Is their success and reputation for developing international talent enough for Few to keep the players coming in from overseas?
Obviously, that’s something we’re going to learn over the next few years. When you make a six consecutive Sweet 16s the way Gonzaga has, a run that includes four Elite Eights and two national-championship games, your name can do much of the recruiting. But when one assistant has been the central figure behind the school’s international talent pool for 20 years, one has to wonder what the drop-off might look like.
A few years ago, Huskies assistant women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes left the Evergreen State to take the head-coaching job at Arizona. She brought with her a star guard in Aari McDonald, quickly built up the program and took the Wildcats to the national championship game this month.
Might Lloyd take a similar track? We’ll find out.
What we know now is that Gonzaga’s rise from mid-major Cinderella to national powerhouse is unique in college sports. It’s hard to think the Zags won’t still shine over the next few seasons, but it’s fair to wonder if they’ll remain the same force.