TUCSON, Ariz. – Yes, Arizona coach Sean Miller said, he does believe in momentum as a coach. And yes, despite Arizona not reaching the Pac-12 tournament title game over the weekend, he believes his team has it heading into the NCAA tournament.
The numbers may say otherwise, but Miller has reason to be optimistic, in part because the Wildcats’ recent play has looked a lot better than in some of their February flops. March is when programs are measured, and UA will get a chance to stack itself up against the best this year after missing out on the tournament last season.
The Wildcats, who finished 25-7 overall, were given a No. 6 seed seed in the West Region — the first two rounds will be played in Salt Lake City — and will face 11th-seeded Belmont in the second round (play-in games are considered the first round).
Miller said Sunday that the No. 6 seed, while lower than most projections, “was pretty accurate” given how Arizona has performed over the course of the season, adding that a four, five and six seed are about the same and the first game of the tourney is always going to be difficult, no matter the bracket placement.
Still, he likes his team and how it’s playing heading into the tourney.
“We’re playing at a high level right now; I don’t know if there’s been another time this season that we’ve played better,” Miller said Sunday, shortly after it was announced that Arizona will be making its second NCAA tournament appearance in his four years as coach.
And that coming from a coach whose team started the season 14-0 and eventually made it to No. 3 in the polls. And from a coach who knows his team is just 5-5 in its last 10 games.
What Miller is hoping to see this week is a team that is “confident, relaxed and excited.”
They’ll need all those things because of “how hard you have to play to beat a team like Belmont,” Miller said.
Belmont, a team averaging 77.2 points per game, is coming off an Ohio Valley tournament championship, finishing 25-6 overall. This is the program’s third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and fourth in six years.
The Wildcats, who have done a poor job of defending the 3-point line this season, will have to do so against the Bruins. Miller said Belmont puts its opponents in “compromising positions” because everyone can shoot from long distance.
The Bruins average 20 3-pointers a game, hitting for a 38 percent average. They like to run, press and create as much havoc as possible, forcing 17 turnovers a game in the process.
“It’s really what I said since October: It’s so important to defend the 3-point shot,” Miller said. “It’s something that at times during the season, we’ve started to improve and it’s been well documented. At times, it’s done us in, and the monster we’re dealing with in the opening round of the NCAA tournament is that very thing.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t do it, that doesn’t mean we will do it, but playing Belmont, every coach looks at their ability to shoot and it’s scary.”
It’s Arizona’s last four games that give Miller some hope. His team’s defense has improved, and his players have shown more determination than they did in a disappointing February.
The sense of urgency has kicked in.
“I think our team has a good mindset right now,” he said. “We’re approaching Thursday’s game in a good frame of mind.”
Miller called it a “collective confidence” from a team that “believes that we can win.”
As for the coach’s mindset, he’s “never been more motivated to coach Arizona and our players and deal with the great fans we have. I’m only worried about us.”
What occurred Friday night in UA’s 66-64 loss to UCLA — Miller received a game-altering technical foul with just minutes left that gave the Bruins two free throws in the eventual two-point loss — has also motivated Miller, although he did add that he’s put that game in the rearview mirror.
“This week was a learning experience, and what it tells me as the coach for Arizona is that we have each other,” he said. “That our players and their development and opportunity (are) by far the thing that matters the most, especially to me and our staff … to protect that and develop that. To not lose sight that it’s about the University of Arizona … that all eggs are in that basket.
“It’s about making sure we are most ready game in and game out, year in and year out.”
Come Thursday the Wildcats will find out just how ready they are.