No easy path to the Final Four
TUCSON, Ariz. — It might be the region attracting the least attention from the pundits, but that doesn’t mean top-seeded Arizona can expect smooth sailing to the Final Four.
Just like every other team in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats will have to claw their way through four games with little margin for error.
As CBS analysts Clark Kellogg said, it’s "never easy when it’s a one and done."
Kellogg did admit on a radio show, however, that he believes there is "no imposing team outside of Arizona" in the West.
Still, only one team in 16 can survive the West for a trip to Dallas in two weeks. Any number of those 16 are candidates if they can get hot at the right time.
In addition to its talented roster, however, Arizona (30-4) has one major advantage in bringing its large and loyal contingent of fans to Viejas Arena in San Diego. That same contingent figures to follow the Wildcats to Anaheim the following week, provided they can get through the opening weekend — starting with Friday’s game vs. 16-seeded Weber State (19-11).
"For us, anytime we can stay in the West, we bring the best fans in the country," said Arizona coach Sean Miller, adding he was sorry to have disappointed the more than 10,000 in Las Vegas last week by not winning the Pac-12 tournament. "You feel a responsibility. It will help us down the road. It gives us energy. Every team covets that home crowd. We have that."
A quick review of similar advantages in recent years, however, isn’t all that promising for the Wildcats and their fans. Arizona played in southern California vs. Ohio State in the Sweet 16 last year and vs. Connecticut in the Elite Eight three years ago and lost both times. Ditto for 2003 (Elite Eight loss) and 1998 as it tried to be a repeat champion. Both of those losses came in Anaheim, Calif. Favorable crowds are nice and all, but they can only take a team so far.
But the first step it to avoid an early exit. This is Arizona’s sixth postseason as a No. 1 seed, and they’ve won their opening game by an average of 35 points in the previous five.
Based on that history, Weber State could be in for a long day. Assuming that comes to pass, it gets tougher in a hurry — with a Sunday matchup against the Oklahoma State-Gonzaga winner.
"They’ve got enough to beat Gonzaga, and Oklahoma State is so sometime-y," said Corey Williams, a FOX Sports analyst and former Arizona player in the 1990s. "I don’t see them beating Arizona.
Should they survive the opening weekend, they could find themselves paired against the likes of San Diego State, Wisconsin, Creighton or Oregon in Anaheim.
"Because Arizona wins with defense, I don’t see any offensive juggernauts other than San Diego State, because they can play in the open court," Williams said.
"Creighton’s Doug McDermott won’t beat Arizona by himself. Oregon is (inconsistent) and Wisconsin?"
Well, that could be a problem. Badger coach Bo Ryan stresses defense.
"It’s going to be a tough one because they are very similar to Arizona in that they defend and they don’t mind a halfcourt game," Williams said. "They are not a flashy, score-a-bunch-of-points team."
Williams then circled back to a potential Sunday matchup with Oklahoma State, a team many national commentators like because of Marcus Smart, an NBA-worthy point guard who has the Cowboys back to winning after his well-documented three-game suspension for shoving a fan.
"If, for some reason, Smart goes out of his mind (scoring), then obviously, Oklahoma State could trip them up," Williams said.
You won’t catch Miller talking about what might lie ahead on Sunday. Think about tomorrow and you might not get past today. Miller has said he’ll stress to the team to not deviate from what has been the norm. Stay steady, stay constant, stay smart.
Drip, drip, drip.
For most of the season, Arizona has been an instrument of precision, save of course, for the wayward free throws.
The challenge has become more difficult since the season-ending foot injury to Brandon Ashley, but still, there’s a lot to like.
"Defense and Nick Johnson," Fox Sports 1 college basketball broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith said of what he likes about Arizona. "UCLA is one of the few teams in the nation who proved they could score on the Wildcats, and that’s because they have two of the best players in the conference. Regarding Nick Johnson, there aren’t many players in the country you’d rather have than him."
And he thinks if Arizona goes to Kaleb Tarczewski more — it needs to establish a strong presence near the basket — it will be very tough to beat.
"Absolutely, but the defense has to be there each game," he said. "If they can slow the pace and keep the game in the 60s, you have to like their chances."