The Arizona State and University of Arizona men’s basketball teams took very different approaches to getting into this year’s NCAA Tournament. ASU kinda snuck in the back door, while Arizona simply kicked down the front door.
But the important thing for college basketball fans in this state is that both teams have a ticket to the Big Dance.
And here’s something that makes it even sweeter. Only three Pac-12 teams made it into the tourney, and two of the three are representing Arizona.
The Sun Devils weren’t sure whether they were going to be participating in March Madness, or watching it from home. After all, an ASU team hadn’t made it into the NCAA Tournament since 2014.
This ASU team was sitting on the bubble after starting out the season as one of the nation’s hottest teams, opening the non-conference schedule with 12 straight wins (a school record), but lost their mojo once Pac-12 games started. The team lost three of its first four conference games and went through the first month without being able to put together back-to-back wins.
ASU (20-11) went 8-10 in conference play, finishing in eighth place. And worst of all, the Devils lost five of their last six games.
And then they got knocked out of the Pac-12 Tournament by Colorado in the first round.
So, after stumbling through the Pac-12 schedule, ASU’s fate hung on whether wins against Xavier and Kansas, both now No. 1 seeds in the tourney, would convince the selection committee that they deserved an invitation. It turned out to be enough to get a berth in the First Four, the play-in games, where the 11th-seeded Sun Devils will face off tomorrow against Syracuse, also an 11 seed, in the Midwest region.
Syracuse (20-13) was the last team in, and ASU was the team admitted just ahead of the Orange.
Arizona (27-7), on the other hand, had no trouble proving they belonged at the Big Dance. The Wildcats posted a 14-4 conference record, won eight of their final nine games, and won the Pac-12 Tournament, beating all three of the teams they faced by double digits. The last two years, the Cats have won both the Pac-12 season and the conference tournament.
In many ways, Arizona had bigger challenges than just about any other team in the field of 64, most of which did not relate to the schedule. Even before the season started, the Arizona program was stunned by the announcement that assistant coach Book Richardson had been indicted in an FBI probe of corruption in college recruiting.
The Cats came into the season ranked No.2 in the country, but lost three straight games at the Battle4Atlantis Tournament shortly after non-conference play started, dropping them from the rankings. They worked their way back up the rankings ladder to No. 15, but were knocked off-kilter once again when starting guard Allonzo Trier was suspended for a couple of games after failing a drug test. And then, with just a few games left on the schedule, an ESPN article came out, implicating head coach Sean Miller in the recruiting scandal.
Despite all that, the Wildcats appear ready to begin their quest to earn a berth in the Final Four, a goal that has eluded Miller throughout his career, which has included four Elite Eight appearances.
ASU is tiptoeing into its first game, not sure which team will show up — the one that beat Kansas and Xavier, or the one that imploded during conference play.
On the other hand, fourth-seeded UofA (South region) will come storming into March Madness, with a full head of steam and led by one of the top players in the nation, 7-foot Deandre Ayton who could be the first pick in the June NBA draft.
The first team that will attempt to derail the Arizona express, and its engineer, Ayton, will be Buffalo (26-8), seeded No. 13.
Arizona’s success in reaching the Final Four, or beyond, depends heavily on how Ayton plays. In the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, he scored 32 points against UCLA and then added 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a couple of blocks for good measure. In the title game, he scored 32 points again, this time against USC, and pulled down 18 rebounds.
Regardless of how deep Arizona goes, with Ayton on the floor, their games will definitely be entertaining.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)