March Madness is finally here. The field is set for the 2017 NCAA tournament, with Sunday night’s selection show revealing this year’s bracket.
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Northwestern and their host of famous alumni are pretty amped about making the NCAA Tourney for the first time.
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TUCSON – A day after the Arizona Wildcats carried the Pac-12 Tournament trophy out of Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, the NCAA Tournament selection committee handed them the real prize.
The Wildcats were given probably the best possible path to the Final Four they could have asked for: A No. 2 seed in the West Region opposite top-seeded Gonzaga, a first-round date with North Dakota on Thursday, and not a single game outside the Pac-12’s footprint the rest of the way.
NCAA Tournament selection committee chair Mark Hollis said UA sat in the middle of the No. 3 seed line – and not in the West Region – entering the week but moved all the way to the No. 6 overall spot when it beat Colorado, UCLA and Oregon to win the Pac-12 title.
Hollis said Duke moved the most over the last week, from a No. 4 to a No. 2 seed while winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, but said Arizona “moved along in similar fashion” before it was finally “stopped” in the comparison process by Kentucky’s overall résumé (those Wildcats received the South’s No. 2 seed).
“Another thing with Arizona is all their losses came to top-16 teams on the RPI,” Hollis said. “So, as you’re looking through those, they’re rising, then they get the wins on the neutral court against pretty good teams in the tournament, Oregon and UCLA. That helped bring them up.
“Those were pretty big moves by both Duke and Arizona historically when you’re looking at the scrubbing (direct comparison) process.”
The biggest difference in landing a West Region seed for UA is that the Wildcats could get a rematch with Gonzaga before what would potentially be a pro-UA crowd at San Jose, Calif., in the Elite Eight for the right to get to the Final Four. Gonzaga beat UA 69-62 on Dec. 3 in Los Angeles, but the Wildcats were without leading scorer Allonzo Trier in that game.
But if UA was a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Midwest (as Oregon now is) they might have to get past Midwest No. 1-seed Kansas in Kansas City, Mo., to get to the Final Four. Top overall seed Villanova could also be looming for a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in an Elite Eight game in New York, too.
Of course, UA coach Sean Miller wasn’t about to look too far ahead into what it all meant. Not with No. 15-seed North Dakota (22-9) having won both the Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles, plus the possibility of facing VCU or Saint Mary’s in the second round.
But he acknowledged that friendly geography can help.
“I’ve learned that when you get a high seed that’s really what you look for, and if you have a chance to stay close to home and stay in the same time zone, that’s a positive for your team,” Miller said.
It’s the opposite of the geographical fate UA suffered last season – on top of a matchup against arguably under-seeded Wichita State – when the Wildcats were shipped to Providence, R.I., and were bounced by the 11th-seeded Shockers, 65-55 in a first-round game.
“It is important to stay in the West,” UA guard Kadeem Allen said at the Pac-12 Tournament (UA players were unavailable for comment Sunday). “We keep our fans with us and traveling to the East, that’s a long travel day. It’s a feeling you get like you feel you don’t belong over here.”
It might not only about geography, but also about rhythm. The Wildcats will basically be playing a Pac-12 style weekend, with a trip to Utah they take nearly every year (except this one, thanks to the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule) – and they will even tip off at the relatively normal time of 7 p.m. (8 p.m. local time in Salt Lake City).
“That’s early,” Miller said, smiling. “We’re used to those 9 o’clock starts.”
If the Wildcats win that first-round game, the final game to be played nationally on Thursday, they would advance to a Saturday game between the winner of VCU and Saint Mary’s.
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Miller expressed plenty of respect for those teams, too. His brother, Archie, coached Dayton to an Atlantic 10 regular-season title, just a game ahead of VCU, while Saint Mary’s is a former “secret scrimmage” partner with the Wildcats in past preseasons.
So Miller’s words in a news conference Sunday went no further than anything involving Salt Lake City.
“There’s nobody we respect more than (Saint Mary’s coach) Randy Bennett, how he coaches and the team that he has,” Miller said. “We have quite a few players who have played against them and know how tough they are. … I feel like I got to know (VCU) through my brother and North Dakota, when you deal with a regular-season champion, somebody that’s been good from start to finish, that’s well-coached, they’re a really good team.”
Arizona actually had a tough outing as a No. 1 seed in 2014 against the Big Sky regular-season and tournament champ, beating 16th-seeded Weber State just 68-59 in an opening game in San Diego.
Weber State actually ended North Dakota’s season in that Big Sky Tournament, and did the same in 2015 and 2016 before the Fighting Hawks broke through with an overtime win in Reno, Nev., on Saturday to earn their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
“It’s been a long process, but they’ve been rewarded,” North Dakota coach Brian Jones said after the Big Sky title game. “We won a lot of tight games. … At the end of the day, they find ways to win. I’m still in awe and excited that we get a chance to play on the biggest stage in college basketball.”
Even though Miller will take the Wildcats there for the sixth time in his eight seasons – his rebuilding clubs of 2009-10 and 2011-12 didn’t make the field – he expressed plenty of excitement, too.
But it came with a wariness that’s inevitable for a team seeded so highly, and in a tournament where the championship game will be held in its home state.
There will be pressure. Plenty of pressure.
“When you get a two seed, you’re viewed as one of the top eight teams in the tournament, and it’s up to us to make that true,” Miller said. “Every year, there’s that one team you thought was going to go far and they just don’t because it’s not a seven-game series. It’s 40 minutes. It’s whoever’s at their very best.”