The Arizona Wildcats are off to one of the best starts in their 100-plus year history and I believe a large part of that falls on the shoulders of senior transfer student from Xavier University, Mark Lyons.
Last year's team and this year's are light years apart with the addition of Lyons and a stellar freshman class. It is the true leadership that Lyons brings that makes this team as good as it is.
The Wildcats finished last year at 23-12 (12-7 Pac-12) and lost the regular-season finale against rival Arizona State. They advanced to the final of the Pac-12 Tournament and lost a heartbreaker to Colorado. They went on to lose big at home in the first round of the NIT Tournament to Bucknell.
That was last year. Seniors Kyle Fogg and Brendon Lavender went on to the NBA and with the departure of Josiah Turner and Jesse Perry, Coach Miller needed a new captain and point guard.
Lyons stepped up.
Lyons has been clutch all year long. And by clutch, I mean coming through for the team when it needs him the most. If you look at Lyons on paper or from a statistical standpoint, there are some glaring deficiencies.
But he is best in the crucial final minutes, which has enabled Arizona to remain undefeated.
The opening weekend of Pac-12 Conference play was a tough one for the Wildcats, with razor-thin victories over Colorado and Utah. The games came down to free throws. Lyons is nails when it comes to banging in free throws in high-pressure situations. He is an unbelievable 10-of-10 from the line in the final minute this year for Arizona and was 13-of-13 at Xavier last year.
Lyons is the reason the Wildcats are 14-0, not 10-4. See what I mean below:
- Dec.15—Florida led by five with less than a minute left on the clock and it was Lyons that nailed a layup with seven seconds remaining to seal the one-point victory 65-64.
- Dec. 25—San Diego State led by as many as six points in the second half and took a narrow one-point lead with 31 seconds left. Skylar Spencer fouled Lyons with 13 seconds left and he hits them both to take the lead back and win the game 68-67.
- Jan. 3—Colorado led by 10 with under two minutes left to play. Lyons scored eight points from that point. He was 4-of-4 from the line including the final two points to tie the score with nine seconds remaining. Arizona went on to win in overtime 92-83.
- Jan. 5—Arizona had dominated this game from the opening tip, but when Utah mounted its final comeback pulling within one with 1:07 remaining, it was Lyons that pulled down a rebound with 11 seconds remaining, drawing the foul. The ice was running through his veins and he drained both free throws to put the Wildcats up 60-57, ensuring another victory.
Being clutch is what makes Lyons indispensable.
Yet he also leads the team in scoring with 14.1 points per game, assists with 3.1 per game and free throw percentage at 88 percent. Unfortunately, he also leads the team in turnovers with 39 and his field-goal percentage of 42 percent is the lowest of all players who average over 20 minutes per game.
On paper, those are problems. In real time, they don't matter as long as he continues to pull through when the game is on the line.