Pelle Larsson putting his body on the line every game for No. 5 Arizona

Thu, Feb 15, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

Pelle Larsson putting his body on the line every game for No. 5 Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Pelle Larsson typically heads off the court straight to trainer Justin Kokoskie while his teammates celebrate a win or lament a loss in the locker room.

A gifted guard for No. 5 Arizona, Larsson looks and feels like a post-match MMA fighter after every game, covered in bruises, knots and scratches.

"He gives you everything he's got," Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. "You guys see him at the end of the game and he's beaten to a pulp."

Larsson's willingness to absorb - and dish out - pain has been the central cog in Arizona's run in three years under Lloyd.

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Larsson arrived in Tucson in 2021 after playing his freshman season at Utah and has molded himself into the Wildcats' Swiss Army Knife. The 6-foot-6 Swedish guard is Arizona's second-leading scorer at 13.4 points, adding 4.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and more than a steal per game.

His impact goes far beyond the box scores.

Larsson has a knack for making the right play nearly every time, often at the biggest moments, whether it's big shot, key pass, a defensive stop or taking a momentum-changing charge.

"He's like an extension of Tommy on the floor," Arizona associate head coach Jack Murphy said. "He knows what we want on the floor. He's always reaffirming what we just talked about whether it's a defensive coverage or a play call. He's an elite communicator who has high basketball IQ, so you have that combination, it's usually a pretty good thing."

Hockey and soccer are the dominant sports in Sweden, but Larsson got into basketball to follow his father's footsteps. Christian Larsson played professionally in Sweden and was a member of the Swedish national team in 1995. Vilgot, Pelle's older brother by three years, played at the University of Maine from 2018-19.

Larsson learned toughness from trying to keep up with his brother and skills from his father, who coached him as a youth before he went to a specialized sports academy inside the Arctic Circle.

Moving hundreds of miles away and living alone might have been daunting for a 16-year-old, but many of Larsson's friends he played with in Stockholm attended the academy as well, so the transition was seamless.

"I was neighbors with all my best friends and it was only an hour, 15 (minute) flight so it wasn't too bad," he said. "I just had a blast."

Larsson had opportunities to remain in Europe to play professionally, but wanted to hone his game, get an education and experience the atmosphere of American college basketball so he signed to play at Utah. Larsson averaged 8.2 points and started 18 games for the Utes his freshman year before coach Larry Krystkowiak was fired.

Larsson opted to transfer and chose Arizona, where Lloyd had just taken the job and had a proven track record of developing foreign-born players during a lengthy stint as Mark Few's assistant at Gonzaga.

Larsson's career got off to a rocky start when he broke his foot during the offseason and served as the Wildcats' sixth man once healthy, providing a spark off the bench on a team that reached the Sweet 16.

Seeing his NBA potential, Lloyd rode Larsson hard his first two years in Tucson, harping on everything from his penchant to overreact on officials' calls to being more assertive.

Larsson listened and worked hard on his game, becoming one of the nation's best all-around players.

"I like to let the game come to me, but now it's kind of forcing your will at times," Larsson said.

Growing up in Sweden, Larsson was taught to be humble, but beneath his calm exterior lies a deep competitiveness his father and brother helped foster. Larsson's aggressiveness may have rankled a few people in Sweden while he was growing up, but it's been a perfect fit for American college basketball.

"You wouldn't want to play poker with him, but he's got a burning desire to win," Murphy said. "Behind that humble exterior, that quiet exterior, there's a rage there. That's what made him a really good player."

The desire has pushed Larsson to put his body on the line every night.

Larsson ends up on the floor multiple times a game, diving for loose balls, getting knocked around for refusing to give ground to a bigger players and, his personal favorite, taking charges.

The batterings often send him hobbling off the floor, but he's back out there after the next timeout or for the next game, ready to take more punishment.

"It's just part of the game," Larsson said. "As long as it doesn't last more than a week, I'm fine with it."

Painful, yes, but it doesn't matter to Larsson as long as it helps his team win.

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