|'Zona needs Lyons to run point and to bring the toughness and swagger he showed at Xavier. (Getty Images)|
Mark Lyons was faced with a decision: Accept the conditions set forth at Xavier and finish out his career with the Musketeers or go elsewhere.
Lyons decided to bolt. It wasn't that he flunked drug tests or was arrested. Nothing major. It was just one of those separations that made sense for both parties. Lyons is strong-willed and, at times, can be difficult to coach.
When the announcement became public, the athletic guard became the most sought-after transfer on the market, fielding heavy interest from the likes of Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona. John Calipari and Bill Self were in pursuit, but in the end, Lyons went with the guy who was supposed to coach him at Xavier: Sean Miller.
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"It's unfair for me to compare how Mark Lyons has been and how he was at Xavier," Miller said. "I wasn't there to actually coach him."
Miller recruited Lyons and was the head coach in 2008-09, when Lyons sat out as a partial qualifier.
"He's been great so far and has done everything we've asked him to do," Miller said.
But the question is whether Lyons can run the point.
That's what Miller needs from Lyons, more than just about anything else except for the toughness and swagger he will also bring with him from Xavier. Lyons has made two Sweet 16 appearances and also been on a pair of A-10 championship teams. The Josiah Turner experiment in Tucson failed miserably and Miller was on the verge of trying to convert two-guard Nick Johnson to a point man.
Then he heard that Lyons' days were numbered at his former employer and decided to roll the dice on Lyons.
"I wasn't hesitant at all," Miller said. "He has a clean slate now -- and he knows it's just a nine-month deal at Arizona."
Lyons averaged 15.1 points last season and shot 39 percent from beyond the arc. He's spent his entire college career playing off the ball since he was paired with natural point guard Tu Holloway in the Muskateers' backcourt. Lyons is ultra-athletic, extremely talented and a proven scorer.
But can he run a team and also become a quality leader?
This is the final chance for Lyons, whose reputation took a hit last season because of his actions during and comments after the brawl with Cincinnati late in the Crosstown Shootout. Then his pride likely took another hit when it was apparent that the folks at Xavier were willing to turn the page and were fine with him going elsewhere for his final season. He likely would have spent his final season playing off the ball at Xavier alongside freshman Semaj Christon, so that also factored into his decision to leave Chris Mack and the Musketeers.
Lyons arrives in Tucson as a critical piece. No, the critical piece. Miller and his staff put together one of the strongest Arizona recruiting classes in years: big men Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett all could play at the next level one day. Gabe York is a top 50 player who likely will come off the bench as the third guard. Arizona also returns veteran wings Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom, young big man Angelo Chol and solid backup point guard Jordin Mayes.
There's no shortage of talent in the desert. No hole -- except at the point.
So in large part it'll be up to Lyons whether Arizona can fulfill the potential and promise that this team possesses, one that could certainly be a factor nationally. He's proven he can score the ball, help take a team fairly deep into the NCAA tournament. But he's never had to push all the right buttons -- both on and off the court.
"He's been eager to learn," Miller said. "He hasn't walked in here asking for one thing."
"He allows us to ho to heights we couldn't have gone without him," he added. "He's a warrior. Confident and physically tough."
That's never been in question, though. The issue is whether he will buy in, blend in and be able to balance scoring and keeping everyone content.
If Lyons can pull that off, he'll quiet the skeptics and likely add another Sweet 16 appearance -- and maybe more -- to his resume.