Looking to adjust his reputation after taking part in the brutal Xavier-Cincinnati brawl back in December of last year, 6-foot-1 guard Mark Lyons is ready for a fresh start after saying goodbye to his former school. Thankfully for him, he appears to have landed in the most ideal location imaginable.
On Sunday Lyons broke the news himself, making it known to all of his Twitter followers that he would be spending the 2012-13 campaign in an Arizona Wildcats uniform. Guard-heavy schools like Kentucky and Kansas were also in the mix for Lyons' services, but in the end did not offer enough in the way of guaranteed playing time to seriously perk his interest. For Lyons, the selection process was more about going through the motions than anything else. As he told the Arizona Daily Star, other schools never stood a chance.
"I knew I wanted to be at Arizona, but I had to make sure I gave it a fair shot," Lyons said. "That was the great thing about me coming out here. … It was a great, great place. They showed me everything and I know what I'm getting in the coaches and the program. I'm going to come there and just try to win."
The obvious connection here is how current Wildcats coach Sean Miller targeted and eventually signed Lyons back when he manned the sideline for the Musketeers, and how much of the same staff Lyons got to know back then is happily in place in the desert as we speak. It's worth noting that the freshman guard was handed a redshirt and therefore did not see the court in Miller's final year with Xavier. Even so, Lyons did get to see exactly how the promising young coach prepared and practiced on a daily basis, and clearly felt a strong enough connection with him as a person to warrant this reunion tour.
It's expected that Lyons will get his degree from Xavier at the end of May and will then promptly enroll as a grad student at Arizona, effectively bypassing the NCAA's mandatory one-year sit-out rule in the process. Joining him on his quest through a decidedly-stacked Pac-12 will be the No. 3 incoming freshman class in the country according to both Rivals and Scout, despite being completely devoid of a point guard. With 2011 five-star recruit Josiah Turner already gone to SMU on a transfer, it's only logical then that Arizona will need Lyons to play on the ball quite a bit next season.
The degree of his playing time, it seems, will be tied to whether he can run the offense efficiently. Lyons should know this better than anyone too, since his NBA and overseas chances should hinge completely on whether he can play point guard on a full-time basis in the pros or not. Not that he needs to instantly make local fans forget about Steve Nash with his passing acumen, but a half-dozen assists on a semi-regular basis needs to be the norm if he wants to keep future basketball on his radar.
Lyons tallied 3.1 assists per game as a secondary distributor in 2010-11, and then 2.8 over a full season in essentially the same role as a junior last year. As a man who has been humbled by this process and appears willing to reinvent himself with a pass-first mindset, Lyons certainly has the makeup of a player who can post 7-8 assists every game or so. Whether Miller and the Wildcats will actually need him to do this is a different question entirely.
One minor area of concern, however, will be protecting the ball. Lyons lowered his assist-to-turnover ratios from his sophomore to junior seasons, but finished 2011-12 with a relatively-high 16.2% turnover rate, which was the best mark of his career by a wide margin. Even in Lyons' sophomore campaign, the time when he was utilized at point more than any year of his career, he was still basically a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover player. Even if he is actively looking to set up teammates more now than ever, Lyons will need to be much more judicial with the ball against steal-happy Pac-12 defenses.
Lost in the shuffle behind his reputation and position is the fact that Lyons can flat-out score as well as any guard in the country. It couldn't have been easy to borrow the spotlight from a go-to clutch shooter like Tu Holloway at Xavier, but Lyons routinely did this over the last two seasons. Even if he is an utter flop at point guard in Miller's rotation (hard to imagine, but still), Lyons remains a nightly double-digit scorer who also happens to be a 39.2% three-point threat. No sane basketball coach in America would turn a kid like that down.
For a program that has its sights firmly locked on an Elite Eight or Final Four trip next spring, Lyons' arrival is an absolute blessing. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell will be available to lead the offense by this time next year, but for now, this could be Lyons' backcourt to run. And with his head in the right place and finally playing for the coach he wanted to play for all along, we might just be talking about one of the Pac-12's biggest difference-makers in 2012-13.