OK, admit it… you probably don’t have Arizona advancing too far in the NCAA Tournament brackets you just turned in. Unless, of course, you’re an alum blinded by loyalty, or are employed in the school’s athletic department.
In fact, the pre-tourney buzz included speculation that the No. 6-seeded Wildcats were prime for an upset in the opening game with No. 11 Belmont. Evidently, the fact that Arizona is 2-0 against No. 11 seeds in past NCAA Tournaments isn’t holding much weight with the doubters this year.
(*Update: Arizona jumped out to a 14-4 lead to begin the game and cruised to an 81-64 win over Belmont. Tomorrow the Cats take on Harvard, the surprise upset winner over New Mexico. Arizona has played the No. 14-seeded Crimson twice and beaten them both times.)
There doesn’t seem to be the level of confidence built by the 2011 squad that went to the Elite Eight.
The Cats got off to a sizzling start this season with 12 straight non-conference wins, and then won its first two Pac-12 games, climbing in the national polls to No. 9 before slowly, gradually descending to their current No. 18 ranking (AP and ESPN/USA Today) – although they are one of just 11 teams in the country to have been ranked in every AP poll this season.
Instead of living up to their pre-season pick to finish atop the Pac-12 Conference, they finished in a three-way tie for second place and were knocked out of the Pac-12 Tournament in the semi-finals by UCLA to put a disappointing cap on the season. They lost to all three of the conference teams that received invitations to the Big Dance: UCLA, Oregon, and California.
So it’s not surprising that the talking heads on the sports radio programs are predicting a possible early exit for Arizona’s lone representative at the dance.
But that doesn’t seem to be bothering Miller or his players.
“We are playing at a high level right now… I don’t know if there was another time this season that we’ve played better,” said the fifth-year head coach following Sunday’s selection announcements. “We have individual players playing at their best, and our team has a good mindset right now.”
One of those players at the top of his game right now is Solomon Hill, the All-Conference senior forward who enters tonight’s game with Belmont ready to stake out several top-10 spots on the school record books. The 6’7″ veteran has played in 136 games at Arizona, which is second-most all-time, and needs just eight rebounds and eight points to move into 10th place for career rebounds and become just the eighth player in school history to accumulate 1,400 points and 750 rebounds.
Hill says he isn’t bothered by the media speculation of an upset and insists it has done nothing to erode the team’s confidence. “They (media) have a job to do, and they are doing their job. Whatever they say is a part of what they do as a professional, and it doesn’t effect me or how I play on the court.
“Everyone on our team knows that we’re a great team.”
But has anyone told Belmont that? The 26-6 Bruins, who won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament to get an automatic bid, is a hot-shooting team that will test Arizona’s ability to slow down an offense that averages just over 77 points a game. They shoot 49.4 percent from the field and almost 39 percent from behind the arc. Four Bruins average in double figures.
Arizona (25-7, 12-6), which is averaging a little better than 73 points a game, has some difficulty at times dealing with teams that use the three-point shot as a primary weapon. But they seem to have overcome that deficiency of late. During the Pac-12 Tournament, the Cats limited opponents to 25 percent shooting from behind the arc. In their final game, they held UCLA to 39.3 precent shooting overall and allowed just one bucket out of 12 attempts.
“Their front-court players can really shoot the ball and put you in those compromising positions,” said Miller in assessing Belmont’s offensive output. “It’s really what I’ve said since October: it’s so important to defend the three-point shot… at times, it has done us in. The monster we’re dealing with in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament is that very thing.”
Miller feels that getting placed in the West Region works to Arizona’s advantage: “We’re excited to play so close to home in a city that is a part of our conference. From our guys’ perspective, everything from traveling there to staying at a hotel we’ve stayed at before, plays somewhat as an advantage to us.”
Arizona has made four trips to Salt Lake City in the past for tournament play, the last in 2003, and are 5-2 in those appearances. Since the Cats have a loyal fan base that dependably turns out for games, the closeness of the opening game should draw a good partisan crowd. For the last 29 years, Arizona has led the Pac-12 in attendance, averaging 14,157 at home this season.
And, true to form, the school’s allotment of tickets were sold out well in advance of the Belmont game.
And that fan support may be just what it will take to help tame the monster tonight. And avoid the upset.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)