Arizona Wildcats basketball: time for higher competition
One weekend into the NCAA tournament, and No. 6-seed Arizona is still alive.
The Wildcats were fortunate enough to face Belmont and Harvard in their first two games, not the suddenly prolific Florida Gulf Coast.
Arizona secured easy victories, winning its first two games by an average margin of 20 points. This Sweet Sixteen trip, the 15th in school history, has looked remarkably less stressful than the last time Arizona went this far in the tournament.
“I can make the case that in our margin of victory, we have a lot of confidence right now,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said this week. “If you say we haven’t been tested, it’s more about the margin of victory than the fact of the competition.”
Not to discredit the Pac-12 conference, whose members gave Arizona all seven of its losses, but the conference tournament champion Oregon Ducks and the regular season champion UCLA Bruins are not as good as the Buckeyes.
OSU point guard Aaron Craft averaged 2.1 steals per game this season, tying for first in the Big 10 conference, while forward Deshaun Thomas averages 19.7 points per game, which leads the “nation’s best conference,” according to Miller, and Thomas has the ability to score in a myriad of ways.
“We will have to prepare well and it will be a team effort against [Thomas],” Miller said this week regarding who will be the main defender on Thomas.
This year’s Sweet Sixteen run is similar to that of the 2009 tournament, when the No. 12-seeded Wildcats upset Utah in the first round and beat Cleveland State in the second round, 71-57. In the Sweet Sixteen, however, a much-better Louisville team pounded them out of the tournament, 103-64.
Ohio State is not nearly as good offensively as the Cardinals were that year, only averaging 71 points per game, while Arizona averages 74. Where the Buckeyes have an advantage, however, is in their defense, as well as the road they to travel to get to Staples Center this weekend.
Ohio State smacked Iona around in its first game, 95-70, but needed a game-winning 3-pointer by Craft to pull out a win over Iowa State on Sunday. Having to deal with a full 40-minute, back-and-forth affair with the Cyclones was no doubt trying for head coach Thad Matta and OSU, but it prepared them for tougher competition.
“We have to play a great game,” Miller said. “They are a two-seed, so I look at them as one of the top-eight teams in the country. They have earned it. I think we’re capable, but anything less than that won’t be good enough.”
Arizona’s blowouts, though, have not prepared them well.
In the 2011 Sweet Sixteen trip, Arizona pulled out two close wins over Memphis and Texas before blowing out Duke.
Sure, Arizona lost in the Elite Eight to eventual champion UConn, but only by two points. The experience of playing tough, hard-fought games helped it cope with adversity as the competition grew in stature.
This postseason, the Wildcats were unable to shake the Bruins in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, the toughest team they’ve faced since losing to Colorado on Feb. 14.
Arizona is about to get a big taste of the higher competition it’s been missing, and at just the right time. If the Wildcats can slip past the Buckeyes, they will face the winner of LaSalle and Wichita State in the Elite Eight.
If the Wildcats can beat OSU, there is a chance — although I can’t call it realistic, given the nature of March Madness — that Arizona can advance to its fifth Final Four in school history.
It just has to get through the toughest competition it has faced since the 14-0 start to the season, including a one-point win over Florida in December.
Not to jinx it.