As the NCAA Tournament Selection show progressed, it became clear about midway through that Arizona was likely to stay in the West. Once Oregon and UCLA were moved, it looked pretty clear Arizona was going to get to play close to home. Like many, I assumed it meant that they were going to be the No. 4 seed in the West. As it turned out, Arizona did not get a favorable seed, but just about everything else went Arizona’s way.
Miller will try to guide the Wildcats past Belmont.
Arizona got the No. 6 seed in the west. Nearly every bracket projection had the Wildcats as a four or five, so six was a little low. More importantly, Arizona gets to play their first round game in Salt Lake City and if they advance out of the first weekend, would get to play in Los Angeles.
Sean Miller did not seem concerned or slighted by the six seed.
"One thing the seeding reflects is the quality of the season that you had,” Miller said. “A sixth seed, you times that by four, you are viewed as the top-20 or top-24 teams in the country. If you consider overall how we performed in the season, that's pretty accurate. Whether we could have been one higher or lower, when you are in and around the seed that we're at, I don't think that really matters.”
More important than the seed, was the location. Salt Lake City and the Bay Area were the two closest locations. Although the Bay Area has a bigger alumni base, SLC is geographically closer to Tucson. Either one would have been desirable for the Wildcats as their fans will be able to make the trek.
“Being able to play in front of as many as our great fans, that to me is something that we're fortunate to have on our side," Miller added.
With Salt Lake City being a Pac-12 city, the program will be familiar with their surroundings. Although they are playing in the EnergySolutions Arena, the home of the Utah Jazz, and not the Huntsman Center, everything else will be familiar. In a time of year where coaches strive for normalization, this could be a benefit.
“From our guys' perspective, everything, from traveling there to staying at a hotel that we've stayed at before, plays somewhat as an advantage to us,” said Miller.
At first glance the Selection Committee seemed to do the Wildcats a favor. The entire bracket seems to be very balanced. There does not seem to be a huge difference between No. 1 Seeded Gonzaga and the rest of the top-five seeds. Gonzaga was a controversial pick for the top seed, and teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Kansas State have all been up and down. Third seeded New Mexico is very talented, but has no real proven track record of NCAA Tournament success.
The Wildcats’ first round opponent could be a benefit. Although Belmont has been deemed the best of the small conference automatic qualifiers, many feel it is better to get a low major opponent, no matter how successful, rather than a flawed, but athletic high major team. Although Belmont can certainly shoot and score, they lack the size and raw athleticism of a team like Minnesota or Ole Miss, two high major teams that have similar seeds.
Despite a lack of NBA talent and height, the Wildcats would be foolish to overlook Belmont.
“They really value shooting and they generally can shoot (well) with more than their perimeter players,” said Miller. “Their front court players can really shoot the ball and put you in those compromising positions and it's really what I said since October, it's so important to defend the three-point shot. It's something that at times during the season, we've started to improve and it's been well-documented. At times, it's done us in and the monster we're dealing with in the opening round of the NCAA tournament is that very thing.”
If Arizona gets past Belmont, they have a potential match-up against third seeded New Mexico. The Lobos had the raw computer numbers to be a No. 1 seed, and many of the television talking heads feel New Mexico is a legitimate Final Four contender. Despite their talent and terrific season, no player on the squad has ever advanced past the first weekend. As a program the Lobos lack a storied tradition in the postseason. The Lobos have been to the Sweet Sixteen twice, but not since 1974 and not since the tournament expanded. Head Coach Steve Alford has coached in seven NCAA Tournaments, advancing to the Sweet 16 just once, in 1999 with Southwest Missouri State (now just Missouri State).
If the Wildcats get past the first weekend, they would get to play in Los Angeles, another Pac-12 city that they are familiar with.
"The possibility of playing in Los Angeles is exciting from the perspective of having our fans involved,” Miller said. “We have the best fans in the world and we saw it in Las Vegas this weekend, it was incredible.”
The rest of the region is intriguing. Top-seeded Gonzaga have the nation’s best record, but have played just one tournament quality opponent (St. Mary’s) in two months. Second seeded Ohio State is surging, but had their struggles mid-year after being a preseason top-10 team. Kansas State is talented, but up and down, while Wisconsin is also playing their best basketball, but have some real questions offensively. Although all of these teams could surely beat Arizona, Arizona also has a legitimate chance to beat any of them. You could realistically argue that the West region has the weakest of the one and two seeds.
None of that matters if Arizona does not beat Belmont. The Wildcats are aware of the benefits bestowed upon them by the Selection Committee, but know that it is all a moot point if they don’t win.
“We're really completely consumed with Belmont,” Miller said. “Their coach is a great coach. They have been here before, they compete for championships. When you get recruited to Belmont, you are competing to be a part of the NCAA tournament. They are trying to advance and they have players who have won a ton of games."