You love him, you hate him … the Arizona Wildcats can’t win without him.
He’s Mark Lyons, senior guard. Not point guard. Just a guard. Or, as he prefers, “I’m just a playmaker.”
He’s the player Sean Miller had to have last spring after freshman point guard Josiah Turner flamed out and fled Tucson. In came Lyons, an immediately eligible graduate transfer, playing for the coach who recruited him to Xavier.
It couldn’t have been much more perfect, especially when Lyons drove for the game-winning shot against Florida and hit key throws to seal the victory over San Diego State in December.
But as the Wildcats sputtered through some of Pac-12 play, Lyons became the flashpoint for criticism and fans’ discontentment. The non-point guard point guard jacked up bad shots, turned the ball over too many times and let the offense stall for long periods of time.
It was easy to make Lyons the goat. Fans hardly knew him, had little emotionally invested in him, unlike their four-year relationship with Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom.
But Lyons was a hero last week in Salt Lake City, scoring 50 points and making 20 of 32 shots. His matchup with Ohio State point guard and defensive whiz Aaron Craft is the one to watch in Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup from Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Basically, as Lyons goes, so go the Wildcats.
And, now, with everything on the line, we’re beginning to get to know him.
* * *
This is the Mark Lyons that Kevin Parrom knows: Lyons is the guy he can’t beat in the NBA 2K video game.
“He always plays the L.A. Clippers, because he’s unstoppable with Chris Paul on the pick and rolls,” Parrom said. “I always play with the Nuggets because I love Andre Iguodala’s game. He’s amazing in video games.
“I’m competitive, but he always pulls it out. I’m always good the first half, but he has that extra push in the second half. I haven’t beaten him yet. He just kills me with Chris Paul. I go down swinging, though.”
Says Lyons: “I’m by far the best player ever in 2K.”
Spoken with the true confidence of a New York point guard.
* * *
This is the Mark Lyons that assistant coach Book Richardson knows: Lyons, from Schenectady, N.Y., is the kid he has been able to relate to since the player was 13 years old.
Lyons’ childhood was marked with tragedy, as he recently told KOLD-TV’s Damien Alameda. He was 2 years old when his father was killed in a car accident as he fled a liquor store robbery. He was 12, upstairs in his house, when his aunt was killed downstairs by her husband.
Richardson only met his biological father once and was born when his mother was 15.
Lyons and Richardson found refuge — and male role models — through basketball.
“My high school coach and my college coach, I call them ‘Dad’ to this day, because they took a special interest in my,” Richardson said. “And the irony is I never thought I would coach. I hated coaching.
“And, now, the basketball god, he is so funny and he’s so fair, because he puts these guys in my life and says, ‘That was you, deal with them.’”
Richardson said the best way to deal with the head-strong Lyons is, well, head-on. Get in his face. Challenge him. Be honest. Lyons’ confidence might be his best, and worst, attribute, making him clutch at times, careless at others.
“I can read him,” Richardson said.
“I can say, ‘What’s your problem?’ ‘Oh, I didn’t get a shot.’ ‘Shut up and get back.’
“A lot of times on the bench, I’ll give him a look like, ‘Are you done yet? Because it’s my turn now.’”
Richardson, UA assistant James Whitford and Miller brought Lyons to Xavier for the 2008-09 season, but the relationship goes back several years.
“I’m kind of like the horse whisperer to him,” Richardson said.
“It’s weird when you know a guy that long. When you watch him from infancy to an adult, I think he’s turned the corner a little bit.”
“Still has to pass the ball a little better,” he added.
* * *
This is the Sean Miller that Mark Lyons knows: A father figure he can trust.
“He never lied to me once since I’ve known him,” Lyons said last week.
“He’s always there for me if I need to talk or anything. That’s my guy right there. Regardless of what happens after basketball, I’m always going to have a relationship with Coach Miller.”
There have been times when Miller has had to sweet-talk Lyons to the media, conceding the senior’s lack of true point guard skills while praising other aspects of his game. That’s not always the same Miller who runs practice or the passionate Miller who rants on the sideline during games.
Lyons says he doesn’t mind Miller getting in his face, and that goes back to the trust issue.
“It’s good. It means he’s coaching me,” Lyons said.
“I mean, I came here to be coached. If he doesn’t get in my face, and he gets in everybody else’s, people are going to look at me like, ‘Why doesn’t Coach yell at him?’ I want him to yell at me. That’s going to get my motivated. Me, I want to make him happy.”
* * *
Book Richardson knows Mark Lyons loves a challenge. Lyons has been a part of four Sweet 16 teams, including his first team at Xavier when he was ineligible to play because he was a partial academic qualifier.
He is the first player in NCAA history to play in the Sweet 16 for different teams in back-to-back seasons.
And here’s the challenge:
“OK, that’s great, you’ve been to four Sweet 16s,” Richardson said. “How many Final Fours have you been to?”
* * *
Mark Lyons loves a challenge, but he knows there is one he would never accept.
Lyons shoots a team-high 85.3 percent from the free throw line but would decline a chance to get into a contest with Miller, who is one of the top free throw shooters in Big East history.
Lyons says sometimes the team will need to shoot a free throw during practice, and Miller will step to the line to take it.
“And he’s like, ‘You can count this,’” Lyons said. “And he’ll make it and brag about it.”
It’s no wonder Miller doesn’t mind seeing a little cockiness reflected back in his point guard.
Anyway, Lyons said he’s seen Miller make 50 free throws in a row.
“I’ve never made 50 in a row before,” Lyons said. “I don’t even want to try because then he’ll brag if he beats me. I don’t want that.”
* * *
This is the Mark Lyons we knew when he picked Arizona last spring after parting ways with Xavier: He was one of the guys involved in the on-court brawl against Cincinnati last season.
“He had some bad press you can call it from the fight last year,” said Arizona sophomore guard Nick Johnson.
“I saw it all on ESPN and stuff like that, but I got to know him as a person and a teammate, and he’s a great kid. Just a very confident guy. I say he’s a typical New Yorker. I always joke with him about that because his confidence never wavers.”
Lyons knows his rep. He says a lot of people figure he’s a “thug” because of the fight.
“People are going to judge me how they judge me,” Lyons said. “I laugh at them.”
Said Richardson: “He’s hit for being a bad, selfish guy. But when you talk to our freshmen, he is the one guy who is always encouraging them. You look at him like he’s a hired gun. It’s like, we coached this kid, we recruited this kid, we’ve known this kid. It wasn’t like we were getting someone who was volatile.”
* * *
What is unknown is Lyons’ place in Arizona history.
He could simply be the “bridge guy” to Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, who takes over next season. Or he could be the guy who leads the Wildcats to their fifth Final Four.
He is averaging a team-high 15.4 points but has barely kept his assists (99) above his turnovers (92). His 3-point shooting (33.3 percent) has been streaky, at best.
He was at his best last week, though, and the matchup with Craft will have a lot to do with who wins Thursday and how Lyons is remembered.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to win games,” Lyons said Wednesday.
“Everybody is caught up in this one-on-one matchup, and I’m not looking at it like that. If my team wins, all of us look good, and that’s all that really matters.”