From Vilnius to Tuscon

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Last Champion

The last Pac-12 team to win the men’s national championship was the Arizona Wildcats, led by Miles Simons and Mike Bibby in 1997.

Since then, the “Conference of Champions” has produced countless student-athletes who have played professional basketball, and championship-caliber teams, including UCLA, who lost to Florida in 2006; and Arizona, who fell to Duke in 2001; both in the finals.

As the only Power Five conference without a television rights deal, challenged by the departures of USC and UCLA, the men’s basketball programs in the Pac-12 find themselves in uncertain times, with coaches already navigating a new recruiting paradigm.

With the advent of NIL, the launch of the NCAA’s Transfer Portal, and the emergence of Overtime Elite & G-League Ignite, top domestic prospects are being afforded opportunities to compete, win, and earn, unlike any other time in college basketball history.

Talent Travels

For the most competitive programs in the country, recruiting overseas has become a priority; spearheaded by Gonzaga, members of the West Coast Conference, who boast a winning percentage of 89% over the last ten years.

The Spokane-based program has established itself as the preeminent destination for top international talent, producing All-Americans year-over-year, while competing in the NCAA tournament every season since 1998 (usually as a top seed).

The Zags are consistent winners, and yet, despite all of the program’s success,
have never won a national championship.

However, 1,500 miles south in Tuscon, Arizona, the Wildcats are a program that has won a title and had more non-American players over the last 5 years on their roster (Zona: 17, Zags: 8), becoming a top destination for international prospects, and executing on the vision of current AP Coach of the Year, Tommy Lloyd, who spent 20 years as an assistant coach at Gonzaga.

Lithuanian Gold  

For the Wildcats and Lloyd, led most recently by 2x First team All-Pac-12 winner Azoulas Tubelis, from Vilnius, success (82% winning percentage/2Yrs) has been driven by the program’s ability to find talent in Europe, and specifically, in Lithuania.

Unsurprisingly, as he enters his third season as head coach, Lloyd’s recruiting class is headlined by Motiejus Krivas, a 7’2 center from Šiauliai considered one of the most promising prospects in Europe.  

With great size and a fluid game, Krivas, who has experience competing professionally with Zalgiris, was dominant as an 18yr old, winning a league championship in the NKL; Lithuania’s second division:

  • After 33 games, he was named the league’s best defender, leading the NKL in rebounding and blocks
  • In 26 minutes per game, he averaged 13.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and 1.5 assists
  • Finished third in player efficiency rating (PER)

In addition, the Wildcats signed Paulius Murauskas of Kaunus, a 6’10 forward who also played professionally for BC Neptunas, and is a member of the Lithuanian national team.

Known for his athleticism and versatility, Murauskas has a good shooting touch and can stretch the floor for the Wildcats who ranked 1st in offensive efficiency and points per possession last season in the Pac-12.

Winning Outlook

Last season, Arizona went 31-3, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, utilizing a fast-paced, effective offense, with Tubelis as the Focal Point.

To build on the success, coach Lloyd has remained committed to his international recruiting strategy, signing two top prospects from Lithuania, and Spanish national team player, Conrad Martinez.

However, as of June 30th, the Wildcats are ranked 10th in the Pac-12, when considering the quality of each school’s 2023 recruiting class. 

  • Is the talent from Europe/Lithuania enough to drive continued success and more wins for Arizona?
  • Will another Pac-12 team, 3 of whom boast recruiting classes in the top 15 nationally, produce the first NCAA champion from the conference in 26 years?

Laikas pasakys (time will tell).