Arizona was a popular pick to become an upset victim against Belmont in last year’s NCAA tournament. This year, the Wildcats have been tabbed by some to be the first No. 1 seed to get knocked off, possibly by their second game.
Yeah, it’s annoying to constantly be doubted, especially with everything Arizona has accomplished under coach Sean Miller.
All the Wildcats can do is shrug and keep their focus on what’s in front of them.
“The bottom line is, just win,” Miller said. “It’s not about talking or predicting. Unfortunately, the people who predict, no one ever holds them to their prediction. They go on and make another prediction. It’s an awesome job. If you’re right, great, if you’re not, who cares? Just do it again.”
The Wildcats have had a knack quieting the doubters.
They put a quick end to the upset talk against Belmont last year, overpowering the Bruins in a 17-point win. Even after bouncing Belmont, Arizona still had doubters, picked by some to lose to Harvard. The Wildcats make a mockery of that, too, rolling the Crimson by 23 on their way to the Elite Eight.
Doubts crept up again this season when sophomore forward Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending foot injury on Feb. 1. No way could the Wildcats survive without one of their best players was what they heard.
Again, they refused to listen, using the perceived slight as chip-on-their-shoulder motivation to win the Pac-12 regular-season title and reach the conference championship game.
Now, the Wildcats are hearing it again.
Not in the opening game. No one is really expecting Weber State to take down Arizona on Friday in San Diego; no No. 16 seed has ever beaten a 1 and the desert version of Wildcats appear to be too deep and athletic for the ones from Utah.
The supposed problem for Arizona comes after that, possibly on Sunday by ninth-seeded Oklahoma State if the Cowboys get past Gonzaga in their opening game. After that, it could be San Diego State in the next round, possibly Creighton or Oregon after that, surely by No. 2 Wisconsin in the West Regional final.
The Wildcats aren’t listening. They know the predicting business is not far from an exact science, particularly in the madness of March.
“What you find is all of a sudden the teams that you felt were strong get upset and they aren’t even in the tournament,” Miller said. “Things can change quickly in one game. It changes dramatically in the first weekend. For us, we have to play to win. You can’t be out there playing not to lose.”
Arizona’s focus allowed it to get through a season of taking every team’s best shot.
With a storied program like theirs, the Wildcats are always going to be a trophy on the wall for teams that beat them. Adding to it, Arizona opened the season in the top 10, spent two months at No. 1 and had everyone chasing them as the leaders in the Pac-12.
Thirty wins and a No. 1 seeding later, Arizona has shown it can withstand the pressure.
“We started very highly ranked. I think everyone wondered if we were worthy,” Miller said. “But because we proved ourselves so early on and we were the No. 1 team in the nation for eight weeks, we know how that feels. Everyplace you go you have a heightened environment. Part of what I hope is that we’ve kind of become battle-tested through it. We’ve been against really good teams in hostile environments. We’ve been in real close games. We’ve been there and done that.”
Arizona will have a nice advantage once the NCAA tournament starts: Location.
Wildcats fans already travel well and won’t have to go far to support their team the tournament’s first two weekends. After the first two rounds in San Diego, Arizona would move just up Interstate 5 to Anaheim, Calif.
Wildcats fans made the MGM Grand Garden Arena feel like the McKale Center West last week in Las Vegas and will likely fill the seats with red in Southern California.
“For us, any time we can stay in the West, we bring the best fans in the country,” Miller said. “The environment in Las Vegas, in my mind, the most disappointing part of losing the championship game is that we had so many fans there that traveled so well that they deserved to stick around and see us hold the trophy. You feel that responsibility. It will help us down the road. It gives us an energy. Every team covets that home crowd. We have that.”