No. 8 Arizona’s Ballo finds balance in basketball and life

Arizona center Oumar Ballo (11) shoots over Colorado center Lawson Lovering (34) during the...
Published: Mar. 6, 2023 at 2:30 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Oumar Ballo always had the power to bull through smaller opponents, his 7-foot, 260-pound frame pretty much ensuring every opponent was smaller.

What the Arizona center needed was a better way to pull back on the reins; when you’re that big, changing directions can take a little longer.

That’s where balance enters into the picture.

Working with Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd and his staff over the summer, Ballo added balance to his brute strength, combining with Azuolas Tubelis to give the No. 8 Wildcats’ one of the nation’s best frontcourts.

“I think that balance for him is everything,” Arizona associate head coach Jack Murphy said. “Coach Lloyd always uses the term not getting in front of his skis and when he stays on balance, he’s really hard to stop.”

As Ballo has found equilibrium on the basketball court, he’s also found balance in a journey that took him from West Africa to the Arizona desert.

Born in Mali, Ballo was an accomplished soccer player before he literally outgrew the sport. The large, athletic kid began attracting attention across the basketball world and, at 14, made the difficult decision to leave home to attend an academy in the Canary Islands.

“It was hard leaving your family when you’re that young, coming to another whole continent where you don’t speak any of the language,” Ballo said. “It was not easy. I missed my family, but at the end of the day, I had a goal and I needed to look at the bigger picture.”

Ballo’s goal was to play in the NBA, so when FC Barcelona Basquet of the EuroLeague offered him a contract, he opted instead to play at the NBA Academy Latin America. Ballo generated more attention in Mexico City, this time from American college coaches, and ended up getting a scholarship offer to play at Gonzaga.

Ballo’s athleticism and size were a huge upside, yet he was still raw during his time in Spokane, Washington. He redshirted as a freshman and saw limited time during Gonzaga’s run to the 2021 national championship game.

When Lloyd, a longtime assistant under Mark Few at Gonzaga, got the job in Tucson two years ago, Ballo followed.

It was a bit of an adjustment.

“He was a beast in the low block, but he couldn’t get up and down the court three times,” Murphy said.

Playing behind fellow 7-footer Christian Koloko last season, Ballo averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds on a team that reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

With Koloko off to the NBA, Ballo spent the summer working on his body, lifting weights, doing extra cardio and boxing. It paid dividends with a leaner, stronger body that allowed him to withstand the rigors of playing in the paint and handle Lloyd’s demands that his big men get out and run.

Ballo was named MVP of the Maui Invitational and is averaging 14.3 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 65% from the floor on a team ranked eighth in the country. He and Tubelis also have become the nation’s best big-man running tandem, a pair of locomotives chugging down the track right to the rim.

“Ballo is a beast,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said after Ballo had 18 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in a win over the Buffaloes on Feb. 18.

A beast with balance and patience.

When Ballo was younger, he could bull right through opponents to get easy baskets. That method didn’t work quite as well when he started playing against the bigger, stronger players in American college basketball.

Working with Arizona’s coaches, Ballo not only got stronger, but improved his footwork through extra repetitions in offseason workouts and individual sessions after practices. The strength and better footwork naturally gave him added balance, enhanced little things like learning to not rock back on his heels or tip his head back.

The added balance keeps Ballo from being knocked off his spot by smaller players and maneuver more gracefully through the inevitable traffic surrounding him in the lane. Balance also gives him better body control, a steadier base to explode to the basket and the ability to survey double teams while backing his man down.

“The skill, the hands, a lot of that stuff was there at the surface, but he’s putting in a lot of work to bring it out,” Murphy said.

Balance on the court, balance in life.