Arizona college hoops fans have good reason this year to watch both the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments. We have a horse in both races.
The Arizona State women’s team and University of Arizona men’s team are both playing – and both teams are nationally-ranked and have what it takes to make a deep run. A Final Four appearance is not out of the question in either case.
But which team will make the deeper run?
(Update: Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to answer this question. The Wildcats didn’t make it past their first game, getting shocked by the Shockers. The 11th-seeded Wichita State Shockers led almost the entire game, using a smothering defense to hold Arizona to almost 30 points below their season average, enabling them to post a 65-55 major upset.)
Both schools have been to the Big Dance numerous times, and got as far as the Elite Eight. ASU’s women have played in two Sweet Sixteen games under the current head coach, Charli Turner Thorne, and made a couple of Elite Eight appearances, in 2007 and again in 2009. Turner Thorne is in her 19th season.
However, this is the first time in the history of the program that an ASU women’s team has been given a No. 2 seed – something even the team and coaches weren’t expecting. The selection committee evidently was impressed by the team’s challenging non-conference schedule this year, combined with the fact that the Sun Devils have already beaten six of the teams that are appearing in the Tournament.
ASU is ranked No. 11 by the AP and No. 9 by the USA Today/Coaches poll, with an RPI of 11.
And they’ve put together a 25-6 record with a group of tough, gritty players that really don’t have a big-time, shoot-the-lights-out scorer. Only one of the players on the roster averages in double figures, and just barely at that. Forward Sophie Brunner comes into the tourney averaging 10.8 points a game, with four teammates not too far behind: Quinn Domstauder (9.6), Katie Hempen (9.2), Arnecia Hawkins (8.9), and Elisha Davis (7.9).
But this is a team with experience. Hempen is a redshirt senior, Hawkins and Davis are both seniors, and Brunner and Domstauder are juniors.
Turner Thorne will readily admit their success this year has been a real team effort. And that will keep their tournament opponents from keying on any one individual.
The Devils were on a 15-game roll from the first week of December right through to the final day in January, hit a huge speed bump in a 23-point loss to Oregon State, and then recovered to run off seven straight. BUT…they lost the final game of the regular season, followed by a surprising exit in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
So they’re not coming into the Dance riding a wave of momentum.
Ditto for the Arizona men’s team. The Wildcats lost three of their final six games, including an overtime loss to Oregon in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament. However, the loss to the Ducks shouldn’t have been too big of a blow to their psyches since Oregon is a No. 1 seed going into the NCAA Tournament.
The Cats (25-8) are ranked No. 16 in the USA Today/Coaches poll and No. 17 in the AP Top 25 after coming into 2015-16 with a pre-season No. 12 ranking. They are tournament-savvy, having made it to the Sweet Sixteen three years ago and then to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances.
But it’s hard to get a handle on just how good this year’s edition really is. This is a very talented Wildcat team, with a couple of seven-footers in Kaleb Tarczewski and Dusan Ristic to work the paint and an athletic back court led by Gabe York. But injuries have dogged them all season long so head coach Sean Miller, just finishing his seventh season, has had to piece together starting line-ups. At one time late in the season he figured that, over a four-month stretch, there hadn’t been 48 hours without at least one player being out with an injury.
Despite all that, they finished the regular season ranked first in the Pac-12 in scoring at 82.4 points per game, scoring margin, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage. They can score the points, and when they add a solid defensive performance they’re hard to beat.
This could be the season Miller gets his boys to the Final Four, and the year that Turner Thorne also notches her first trip into that rarefied air. But the Wildcats are unpredictable – not to mention prone to injury – and could easily fall short of that goal.
However, thanks to a draw that put the Sun Devils in the Sioux Falls Regional, they don’t have to deal with UConn in the early going. So a Final Four appearance is within reach – but that lack of a go-to scorer may keep that from happening.
Look for both teams to still be standing when we get to the Sweet Sixteen. After that, the madness will kick in and it’s anybody’s guess.
The Wildcats are a No. 6 seed and open tonight against No. 11 Wichita State. Second-seeded ASU has another day to prepare since their first game is tomorrow when they host the Western Athletic Conference champion, No. 15 New Mexico State.