• NCAA tournament preview: Title favorites to biggest snubs

    NCAA tournament preview: Title favorites to biggest snubs

  • 2017 NCAA tournament: West region preview

    2017 NCAA tournament: West region preview

  • 2017 NCAA tournament bracket revealed

    2017 NCAA tournament bracket revealed

  • USA TODAY sports reporter discusses NCAA tournament

    USA TODAY sports reporter discusses NCAA tournament

  • Media circus: A guide to March Madness

    Media circus: A guide to March Madness

  • John Calipari reacts to NCAA Tournament bracket

    John Calipari reacts to NCAA Tournament bracket

  • Northwestern makes NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history

    Northwestern makes NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history

Nothing about the NCAA Tournament is easy. A close look at the 2017 bracket, however, suggests this is a journey Arizona can successfully navigate all the way to Glendale.

The travel is good.

The matchups are tough but reasonable.

The top seed in the region is a familiar opponent.

The ultimate destination is just 132 miles away.

“The seed we have, the location we have, we’re excited to have that as our path,” coach Sean Miller said at a post-announcement media gathering.

Selection Sunday revealed a road that will take the Wildcats no farther than San Jose, Calif., if they advanced to the West Regional final. Last season, they started In Providence, R.I., more than 2,500 miles away.

RELATED: Arizona is West’s No. 2 seed; Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, Gonzaga are top seeds

The Wildcats take on North Dakota at 6:50 p.m. Thursday in Salt Lake City, a short plane flight more than 700 miles to the north and to a city easy to maneuver.

The Wildcats secured a No. 2 seed in the West region behind No. 1 Gonzaga, a team that beat them 69-62 on Dec. 3 in Los Angeles, while they were still adjusting to life without Allonzo Trier.

They can credit a strong showing in the Pac-12 Tournament, which they won with a title-game victory over Oregon, for helping land a high seed.

Arizona is a team “that moved up considerably as the week went along,” said Mark Hollis, chair of the Division I basketball committee.

The Ducks helped by losing versatile big man Chris Boucher to a torn ACL before their game, but the Wildcats delivered by stepping up their game and appear to be peaking at the right time.

WIN $1,000 IN PRIZES: NCAA Tournament bracket contest

“You want to enter the NCAA Tournament playing your best basketball,” Miller said. “You can make a case we’re doing that right now.”

Arizona shot 68 percent in the second half against Oregon (and 58 percent in the game). Seven-foot standout freshman Lauri Markkanen appears to have found his long-range stroke again, connecting on 8 of 17 3-pointers in his previous three games to complement standout defensive play.

The team’s personality is finally surfacing with stubborn defensive play and a united cause. The players and their coach are on the same Final Four-fueled page, and if that much-debated late timeout against UCLA did anything, it made the team want to deliver for its coach even more.

And if it resulted in a little national scolding of Miller, the guess here is it doesn’t matter in the least to him.

Now begins the journey, one that starts Thursday against a North Dakota team playing in its first NCAA Tournament.

RELATED: Potholes ahead for No. 1 seeds on NCAA road to Glendale

Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy knows the team well. His Lumberjacks split with the Fighting Hawks in the 2016-17 season.

“They have a very good backcourt for a mid-major,” Murphy said Sunday. “And they are as good a pick-and-roll team as there is in college basketball.”

Their standout is guard Quinton Hooker, who is averaging 18.8 points per game. They also have a 7-foot junior who comes off the bench, Carson Shanks, but North Dakota plays best with a smaller lineup.

Murphy also called Brian Jones “one of the most underrated coaches in the country.”

“We’re not looking past that game,” Miller said. “That’s our focus.”

The Fighting Hawks have a difficult test. Arizona leads the Pac-12 in 3-point defense, rebounding defense and free-throw shooting.

MORE: West region analysis and capsules

RELATED: NCAA Tournament schedule, TV info

If the Wildcats advance out of the first round – something they weren’t able to do last year thanks to a tough opening-round matchup with Wichita State – they will take on the winner of No. 7 Saint Mary’s and No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth.

The Gaels feature the unappreciated Jock Landale, a 6-11 junior from Australia. He was one of five finalists for the 2017 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award, and is averaging 16.8 points on 60.9 percent shooting.

“There’s no one we respect more than (coach) Randy Bennett,” Miller said.

Other potential matchups include meetings with No. 11 Xavier, Miller’s former team, or No. 3 Florida State, which features Jonathan Isaac, a 6-10 small forward who can be a tough matchup.

Some have picked FSU’s opening-round opponent, No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast, as a potential early-round upset team.

The other part of the West bracket includes No. 4 West Virginia, No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 1 Gonzaga.

MORE: Countdown to Arizona’s Final Four

The Bulldogs had a season worthy of a top seed, finishing 32-1, their only loss to BYU.

No question the Wildcats would like to face them again as a team more comfortable in its own skin.

“I think we’ve grown,” Miller said. “The one unique situation we had, Allonzo missing 19 games and the team going 17-2, you’re going to go through a growing period.

“Now, everyone is sure of their roles and there is more confidence in all aspect of their game.”

Confident enough to get to the Final Four?

It’s looking more and more that way.

Reach Paola Boivin at [email protected] and on Twitter at Twitter.com/PaolaBoivin. Listen to her streaming live on “The Brad Cesmat Show” on sports360az.com every Monday at 10:30 a.m.


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