TUCSON – Sean Miller recruited Mark Lyons to have an immediate impact on his program.
Five years and three time zones later, they finally have a chance to make it happen.
Lyons chose Miller and the University of Arizona over Kentucky for his final college season after graduating from Xavier last May with a year of eligibility remaining. The two have known each other for six years or so, ever since Miller and now-UA assistant Book Richardson began scouting Lyons and eventually brought him to Xavier. A glitch in Lyons’ transcript kept him from playing that season, and Miller was in Tucson by the next.
“That was the first coach of my college career. It was kind of a no-brainer that I wanted to play for him,” Lyons said, resisting a hard sell from Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“Coach Cal is a great guy, a great coach, one of the guys I really wanted to play for. But you know coach Miller was there for me from the beginning. I owed it to him. When it came to coaching and philosophy and stuff like that, I knew I was going to have the best teachers in college basketball.”
How did he break the news to Calipari?
“I couldn’t do it. I knew he would probably try to persuade me or something,” Lyons said.
Lyons was content with his decision, and his addition is a big plus. After helping Xavier to the NCAA Sweet 16 in each of the last three seasons, Lyons will fill the backcourt vacancy created by the graduation of leading scorer Kyle Fogg, who averaged 13.5 points per game.
The 6-foot-1 Lyons averaged 15.1 points per game last season, mostly playing the off guard position with Tu Holloway at the point. The two occasionally shifted roles, as they did in the NCAA tournament.
Lyons, who had 16 points while playing the entire 40 minutes in a season-ending 75-70 loss to Baylor in the NCAA tournament last year, said he is comfortable in either spot.
“Last year, my team didn’t need me to be a passer,” he said. “They needed me to score. We didn’t have a lot of offensive load, so my coach wanted me to score, and that’s what I did. But when it was time for me to pass the ball, it was like clockwork.”
Like Fogg, Lyons is more of a combo guard than a true point, but that works for Miller, who loves the take-charge attitude Lyons brings.
“He gives us competitiveness, toughness, and he’s been in the arena in a big game,” Miller said.
“He’s had one dynamic career. He can impact the game in a lot of ways. He can do it defensively. He can do it scoring … and he can do it by getting other players involved. He is not a one-dimensional player by any stretch. Mark can play with a point guard or he can be a point guard. That competitive fire that he has can really be contagious.”
Jordin Mayes, who missed five games down the stretch in 2011-12 because of a left foot injury, would be the top candidate to play the point if/when Lyons moves to a wing. Nick Johnson played some point last season, also.
Lyons increased his scoring average, field-goal percentage and range every year at Xavier, and he made 39 percent of his 148 three-point attempts last season. The UA is likely to play more inside-out this season because of its freshmen big men, and Lyons could fill a role as a spot-up shooter for a team that lost its two biggest outside scoring threats in Fogg (72 threes, 44 percent on three-point attempts) and Brendon Lavender (55 threes, 49 percent). Johnson made 40 threes last year.
“I know he can be a really, really good piece to this team,” said senior Kevin Parrom, who was introduced to Lyons during their prep school days in New York. Lyons is from Schenectady, N.Y.
“He is a competitor. That’s what I like about him. He competes every drill. He sometimes makes me want to compete harder than I’m going. He’s a good guy, and he makes everybody better.”
While it might seem difficult for a senior newcomer to make an immediate leadership impact, Lyons already seems to have earned the respect of his teammates. The UA’s off-season trip to the Bahamas helped in the meshing process.
“His character is inviting,” said senior Solomon Hill, the team leader. “If he was a quiet guy and stood away from us, it would be different. He is inviting, and it makes you want to talk to him. You can laugh with him. Everybody really likes him, and he is able to pitch in and give him opinions on things.”
“He reminds me a little bit of Momo (Jones), how Momo was vocal and always ready to play. That’s one less guy I have to worry about on the floor. I have to coach some of the freshman guys. I know that I will never have to coach Mark. It will be big change from what you saw Xavier to here, just for the fact he is running our team now.”
Hill calls it a reflection of the East Coast mentality.
“Just like when Momo went to Iona, he was able to fit in as soon as he got there. He had a great season. I think Mark will do the same for us,” Hill said. Follow Jack Magruder on Twitter