Aztecs draw New Mexico State in first game of NCAA tournament
A loss in the Pac-12 title game didn’t hurt Arizona when it came to seeding the NCAA tournament.
Despite their loss to UCLA on Saturday night in Las Vegas, the Wildcats (30-4) are No. 1 in the West Region and will open against No. 16 Weber State in their opening game on Thursday in San Diego.
Arizona got the top spot based on its regular season, one that started with a school-record 21 straight wins and included the Pac-12 regular-season title despite losing forward Brandon Ashley for the season with an injured foot on Feb. 1.
The Wildcats are the top dogs in the West, but they’ll have a tough road. Get past the Big Sky version of the Wildcats (19-11) and Arizona will face the winner between Oklahoma State and Gonzaga.
The rest of the West bracket is filled with strong teams, too, including No. 2 seed Wisconsin, No. 3 Creighton with player-of-the-year front-runner Doug McDermott, San Diego State, Oregon and Baylor.
That’s four ranked teams standing in the way of fourth-ranked Arizona in a regional that will conclude Mar. 27-29 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
Wisconsin (26-7) had been in the running for a No. 1 seed before losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. The 12th-ranked Badgers still will be a tough out with a defense that’s always one of the best in the country under coach Bo Ryan.
Wisconsin will have a short trip, too, opening Thursday in Milwaukee against American, the Patriot League champions who went from 10-20 a year ago to a 22-10 season to reach the NCAA tournament for the third time.
Get past American and Wisconsin will play the winner of what should be an electric game between Oregon (23-9) and BYU (23-11), two of the nation’s fastest-paced and highest-scoring teams. They played once already this season, with the Ducks winning a home overtime game that featured nearly 200 combined points and nearly as many highlight-reel plays.
The Cougars might have a hard time keeping up this time, though, after guard Kyle Collinsworth suffered a torn ACL in the WCC title game.
The Gonzaga-Oklahoma State game could be a good one, too.
The Zags pulled off a West Coast Conference sweep and are one of the nation’s most underrated teams. Oklahoma State has one of the best players around in guard Marcus Smart and shook off a funk while he was suspended for shoving a fan with a strong finish to the season.
In San Antonio, McDermott will start his final go-round in the NCAA tournament after the Bluejays (26-7) lost to Providence in the Big East championship game. The senior led the nation in scoring at 26.8 points per game, is pretty much everyone’s pick as the national player of the year and will certainly want to go out with a bang.
Creighton opens Thursday against Sun Belt champ Louisiana-Lafayette, in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. Get past the Ragin’ Cajuns and the Bluejays will play the winner between Baylor and Nebraska.
The Bears (24-11) had been bouncing on the NCAA bubble late in the season before closing with nine wins in 11 games. Even a loss to No. 16 Iowa State wasn’t enough to derail Baylor’s return to the bracket after winning the NIT a year ago.
Nebraska (19-12) was familiar with the bubble and firmed up its chances by winning eight of nine to close the regular season. Not even a quarterfinal loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament could prevent the Cornhuskers, who were picked to finish last in the conference, from reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
The next goal is to win a game; they’re 0-6 all-time in the NCAAs.
The marquee game in Spokane, Wash., will be San Diego State (29-4) and New Mexico State (26-9), two mid-majors — if there is such a thing anymore — hoping to make some noise.
The eighth-ranked Aztecs slipped up in the Mountain West title game by losing to New Mexico, but will be in the field of 68 for the fifth straight year after a strong regular season that included a breakup of Kansas’ 67-game nonconference home winning streak.
They will face a tall order, literally, against New Mexico State, the WAC champs who are anchored by 7-foot-5, 355-pound immovable force Sim Bhullar.
The late game in the Northwest will pit No. 17 Oklahoma against North Dakota State.
The Sooners closed the season strong enough to overcome a loss to Baylor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament to earn the No. 5 seed in the West. They’ll face a Bison team that finished the season with a flourish, winning its final nine games, including 60-57 over Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne in the Summit League championship game to reach the NCAA tournament for the second time as a program.