Arizona on a roll as it opens tourney play vs. North Dakota
SALT LAKE CITY — Few teams have weathered as much adversity as Arizona has this season.
Early injuries and suspensions left the Wildcats with paper-thin roster depth for much of the year. Still, Arizona found a way to survive. When key players like Allonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright returned, the Wildcats assumed the identity of a potential Final Four team.
Arizona (30-4) has loads of potential to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2001. The Wildcats clawed their way to a share of the Pac-12 regular-season championship and then knocked off co-champ Oregon to win the league tournament title. They have the pedigree to grind out enough wins to get to Phoenix.
No. 2 seed Arizona faces Big Sky champion North Dakota on Thursday night in its NCAA Tournament opener. The winner will face either Saint Mary’s or Virginia Commonwealth in the next round.
“You want to enter the NCAA Tournament playing your best basketball,” Arizona coach Sean Miller told reporters on Sunday. “You can make the case we’re doing that right now, especially offensively.”
The Wildcats averaged 76.4 points on 47.0 percent shooting in its Pac-12 regular-season games. Arizona outscored opponents in conference play by 9.7 points per game and outrebounded opponents by 6.5 rebounds.
One reason for such dominance is freshman center Lauri Markkanen. The 7-footer from Finland is second on the team in points (15.6) and is the top rebounder (7.1). Markkanen evokes comparisons to NBA All-Star Dirk Nowitizki with his shooting abilities. He is lethal from the perimeter, connecting on 43.2 percent of his attempts.
Trier’s return also gave Arizona a huge boost. He has only appeared in 15 games after serving a suspension related to performance-enhancing drugs. Since coming back, Trier has led the Wildcats in scoring at 17.3 points and is a true game-changer with his playmaking abilities.
Arizona will open NCAA play against the Big Sky champion for the second time in four seasons. North Dakota earned the first bid in school history after sweeping the conference regular season and tournament crowns.
The Fighting Hawks (22-9) won 10 of their last 11 games after rebounding from a 5-6 start to the season and registered their most victories in a season since moving to the Division I level. They needed to outlast Weber State 93-89 in overtime in the Big Sky championship after rallying from an 11-point second-half deficit.
“Unbelievable,” North Dakota coach Brian Jones told the school’s website after the game. “What a resilient bunch of players, who never lost faith that we were going to come out with a victory. We put this team together for this very day.”
North Dakota ranked second in both scoring offense and scoring defense among Big Sky teams, averaging 80.5 points while limiting opponents to 72.8 points. The Fighting Hawks are efficient shooters, making 48.3 percent of their shots, including 38.7 from distance.
Quinton Hooker presents the biggest offensive threat. The senior guard averages 19.1 points and gets it done at the line and on the perimeter. Hooker led the Big Sky in free-throw shooting, making 87.7 percent of his attempts. He also is North Dakota’s top 3-point shooter, making 43.6 percent of his shots from the perimeter.
Arizona (30-4) vs. North Dakota (22-9)
First round, West region; Salt Lake City; 6:50 p.m. Arizona time.
BOTTOM LINE: Arizona is one of the hottest teams in the country after winning the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles. The Wildcats have advanced to the Elite Eight three times under coach Sean Miller, but have not reached the Final Four since 2001. Anything less will be a disappointment.
FAB FROSH: Arizona freshman forward Lauri Markkanen is expected to be a high first-round pick in the NBA draft if he leaves after the tournament. He averaged 15.6 points per game, 7.1 rebounds and shot 43.2 percent from 3-point range.
BACK WITH A VENGENCE: Arizona guard Allonzo Trier missed the first 19 games of the season due to testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. He has been on a tear since returning, averaging 17.3 points per game and being named Most Outstanding Player of the Pac-12 Tournament.
NEWBIE: The Fighting Hawks are making their NCAA Tournament debut as a Division I program. North Dakota advanced to the Elite Eight seven times while in Division II. The athletic department became a full-time member of Division I in 2012-13.
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