Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller discusses the expectations on his team.
Thanks in part to former Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, the Wildcats received a much-needed name brand for their 2017-18 home nonconference schedule when Alabama agreed to start a two-year series at McKale on Dec. 9.
But the nonconference team with the best 2016-17 RPI headed for McKale next season may be a surprise. Unless you watched some Western Athletic Conference or NIT ball last season, that is.
Cal State Bakersfield, which will be back at McKale for the second straight season, moved on from a 78-66 loss to Arizona early last season to win the WAC with a 12-2 record, then reach the NIT semifinals and finish with an RPI (Rating Percentage Index) of 59.
The Roadrunners, who were invited back to face the UA on Nov. 16 next season, lost three of their top five scorers from last season but are welcoming in their best-ever recruiting class.
Overall, while the UA lacks marquee opponents outside of the competitive Battle 4 Atlantis event during Thanksgiving Week, the Wildcats should be able to improve on what was the No. 108-rated nonconference schedule in 2016-17, according to Kenpom.com.
Arizona’s strength of schedule was hurt last season because its appearance in the Las Vegas Invitational came with two assigned home games against lowly rated teams: Sacred Heart (RPI 299) and Northern Colorado (287) — while road opponent Missouri bombed all the way to a 253 RPI.
UA coach Sean Miller said last season that the Wildcats would not play in the Las Vegas Invitational again “for that reason.”
In the upcoming season, assuming struggling opponents UNLV (239) and Long Beach State (213) rise to their more typical strength, the Wildcats could get hurt only by a home game against NAU (335). The Wildcats invite the Lumberjacks in on a semi-regular basis because of the in-state ties and the fact that NAU coach Jack Murphy was a UA staffer under Lute Olson.
“It’s not an exact science but outside of maybe one team, we might not face anybody above 200,” said Ryan Reynolds, the UA’s director of basketball operations. “Avoiding the bad RPI games is generally accepted as a way to go (for NCAA Tournament seeding).”
Most of the Wildcats’ multiple-year series have been long set, but the Alabama series was formally signed Thursday, completing the schedule. Arizona had an opening for the weekend of Dec. 9-10 but needed a home game in order to satisfy its annual goal of offering 18 games (including exhibitions) for the season-ticket package.
Arizona always had the option of adding another one-time guarantee game at McKale to the five it already had. But Alabama popped up this spring after Byrne became the Crimson Tide’s athletic director.
Reynolds said Byrne and Miller mostly negotiated the deal, but that Alabama coach Avery Johnson was also on board.
“Obviously, Greg helped us,” Johnson told the Tuscaloosa News. “He’s really serious about helping and continuing to grow our basketball brand. He was a major part of that negotiation.”
The Tide went 19-15 in 2016-17 during Johnson’s second season. But Alabama has a core of strong returners and the No. 7 recruiting class in 2017 coming in, according to 24/7 Sports’ composite team rankings (the UA’s class is No. 3).
Johnson also told the Tuscaloosa News that Alabama has been discussing a need to improve its nonconference schedule and bring high-level teams to Tuscaloosa, where the Wildcats will play a return game on Dec. 9, 2018.
“We started calling a lot of the top teams around the country trying to schedule games,” Johnson said. “Fortunately Arizona is a team that is a well-respected team.”
Of the other games on Arizona’s schedule that are part of multiyear series, UNLV is the final installment of a four-year series, Texas A&M is the final game in a semi-neutral series that put the teams in Houston last season (editor’s note: this year’s game will be at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix), New Mexico is the final game of a two-year series that began at McKale last season, and UConn is the first game in a two-year series that will continue next season at Storrs, Conn.
The one-time “guarantee” games are against NAU, Bakersfield, LBSU and North Dakota State. Arizona will also play the University of Maryland Baltimore County, but that game is technically an add-on to the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. One-time guarantee opponents are paid sums usually between $85,000 and $95,000 instead of getting a return game.
Arizona will play at UConn and Alabama in 2018-19, and it will also open a two-year series with Baylor at McKale Center and play in the Maui Invitational that season.
Nonconference game times and the Pac-12 games for 2017-18 won’t be announced until late summer, though the Pac-12 is expected to announce the weekend schedule pairs this month.
Arizona’s Red-Blue Game will be on Friday, Oct. 20.