Some reasons to celebrate AZ Wildcats playing in NIT…

Now that the University of Arizona men’s basketball team is headed to the NIT Tournament, Sean Miller has a chance to do something one of the coaching legends at the school before him never could.

No, we’re not talking about comparing him to Lute Olson.  He gets enough of that on a daily basis.

Olson spent ‘just’ 24 years at the helm of the storied program.  But Fred Enke was there 36 years – an unbelievable statistic in itself!

Besides, you can’t compare any accomplishments by Olson in the NIT.  His teams never played in that tournament.  But they did get invited to the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament, for 23 straight years – and made it to four Final Four appearances.

OK, so we’re being a little tongue-in-cheek here.  Miller, too, would much prefer to be preparing his Wildcats for a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament instead of getting ready to face off with Bucknell tonight in the NIT opener.

If he wants to upstage Enke, he just needs to get the boys past the quarterfinals.  Enke went to three NIT Tournaments during his tenure, in 1947, ’50, and ’51.  All three trips ended at the quarterfinals.

(*Update: The Wildcats’ run this time around ended well short of the quarterfinals, as Bucknell stunned Arizona, 65-54, in the opening round.  The Bison held the Cats to 35 per cent shooting and controlled the game most of the way, taking an early 13-point lead and then squelching an Arizona comeback in the second half.  Solomon Hill led the way with 17 points and nine rebounds.)

The NIT was formed by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association in 1938, the year before the NCAA Tournament was created.  For many years it was the big dog of post-season events, until the NCAA Tournament’s popularity overwhelmed it, turning it into a ‘second-tier’ tournament for those teams not getting an invite to the Big Dance.

Most fans today remember Olson and his accomplishments that led to a Hall of Fame induction because they go back just a generation.  Enke’s last tour in Tucson was the 1960-61 season.

But, by the time he packed away his whistle, Enke won 509 games with the Cats and remains one of the school’s most successful head basketball coaches with a .611 win percentage.

He’s been dead 26 years now.  But he would probably be happy to see his NIT record in jeopardy.  Arizona is a No. 1 seed and has to be considered a favorite to at least get to the finals.

But this is unfamiliar territory for the Cats.  Not only are they in a tournament that is new to them, but they open against a team they have never faced before.  Bucknell plays in the Patriot League, where they made it to the conference championship game, but lost to Lehigh University by five points.  (Lehigh was rewarded with a No. 15 seed in the NCAA tourney and a chance to play No. 2 Duke.)

The Cats have played a team from the Patriot League just one time, back in 1988 when they beat Holy Cross.  Bucknell is sporting a 24-9 record, 12-2 in the league, and the Bison average 69 points a game.

Three players average in double figures, led by Mike Muscala’s 16.7 per game.

Arizona (23-11, 12-6) is a No. 1 seed and Bucknell is seeded eighth.  It should be a step-over game to the next round for the Cats.

This is the first time in 61 years that Arizona has been relegated to play in the NIT.  But there are some advantages – besides the chance to top Fred Enke.

To begin with, as the top seed, Arizona plays at home.  No travel for team or fans.

Also, game tickets are easier to come by…and you can get in for just 15 bucks if you’re willing to settle for general admission seating.  If you’re a student, it’s just $5.

And it’s still post-season play.  The teams just aren’t as familiar to most fans.

However, if the Cats win their first two games, there’s a good chance they will run into a familiar face.   They could meet Stanford in the quarterfinals – right where Enke’s trail ended each time.

And that would be a good thing.  Arizona beat the Cardinal by 13 in Palo Alto in early February, and a repeat performance would put the Cats in the Final Four.

But, first things first.  The Bison await tonight at 6 o’clock in McKale Center.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics/ Luke Adams)