The Arizona men's tennis players and coaches got together Monday afternoon as the NCAA revealed the 64-team bracket for the upcoming tournament.
The Wildcats made the tournament the previous two years it was held, but this season felt different as Arizona had hopes of earning a bid to host for the first time in program history. In the end, the Cats fell just short and will head to Chapel Hill where they will be facing Princeton with the winner facing host North Carolina or Navy in round two.
"I'm heartbroken for our team," head coach Clancy Shields said. "We earned it. We deserved it. We were No. 16 in the country, and we should be hosting the NCAA Tournament on our home courts."
When watching the bracket reveal, senior Carlos Hassey talked about what he was looking at specifically in hopes that Tucson would be announced as a host.
"We were looking for the 15 or 16 [seed] but once 16 didn't go through, we were hoping for 15," Hassey said.
Despite the initial disappointment, this isn't the first time this Arizona team has had a chip on their shoulders. It was just last season when they made their run to the Sweet Sixteen which went through Kentucky.
"If you want to be successful in anything in life and especially as an elite athlete, you've got to like adversity in order to move forward," senior Filip Malbasic said. "We as a group can embrace the challenge instead of looking at it in a bad way."
One of the common themes Shields expresses each year is playing for the seniors. His big hope this season was to be able to host for the seniors.
"I was kind of paranoid the last couple of weeks seeing where we would finish up and when I found out we had finished at 16, I guess I just blindly thought we would get it," Shields said. "I was really relieved that we would be able to do this on our home courts because we have only lost in Tucson one time in the last two years. We're close to 30-1 with our one loss coming to third-ranked Baylor."
Shields noted that while it is disappointing for the team not to get a chance to host, they're going to have a quick turnaround as they hope to head out to North Carolina on Tuesday.
"We'll regroup," Shields said. "That's one thing we talk about as a team all the time is how we handle adversity and 10 percent of life is what happens to you and 90 percent is how you handle what happened to you. We're going to handle it, go and put our best foot forward to see how we can do on the road."
It wasn't just the Arizona players and coaches who expected them to host, but other coaches across the country as Shields phone was blowing up when Arizona's name was called.
"My phone is ringing off the hook," Shields said. "Everyone around the country, all my coaching colleagues are saying, 'What happened, what happened' and I don't know. I don't have an answer for my players."
The Wildcats have some familiarity with their first-round opponent as they fell 4-0 to then ranked No. 28 Princeton in the 2019-20 season. Shields and the rest of the team know this won't be an easy match.
"We only look at the first round and it is Princeton," Shields said. "They have kind of had our number. They're a really talented team, good team and a tough out. We're going to have our hands full in the first round playing one of the top teams in the Ivy League so we're not going to look past anything. It is one match at a time."
Looking to what is next, the Wildcats will hope to take what they learned in last year's run and try to apply that to this year as they hope to make an even deeper run past the Sweet Sixteen.
"We understand that we're going to get in at 2 am [on Tuesday,]" Shields said. "We're going to probably try to clean out the Taco Bell or whatever is open to eat. You just try to get acclimated to the courts as quickly as you can and adjust as quickly as you can."
Shields mentioned the weather change Arizona will have to go through as they look to adjust to the new surroundings.
"We're going from a really dessert air to hot and humid North Carolina," Shields said. "That changes the ball game a little bit."
The Wildcats first-round match against Princeton will take place on either Friday or Saturday.
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