WASHINGTON (AP)—One streak is intact. Now, Arizona is in position to extend another dazzling run.
The Wildcats are in the NCAA tournament for the 24th consecutive season, the longest current string in men’s college basketball and only three short of the record of 27 set by North Carolina from 1975-2001. If history means anything, then 10th-seeded Arizona has a decided edge over No. 7 West Virginia, its opening-round opponent Thursday night in the West Regional.
The Mountaineers, after all, are working on a streak of one.
“Obviously, it’s a very impressive record,” West Virginia center Jamie Smalligan said of Arizona’s run, which began in 1985 and includes four Final Four appearances.
A victory by the underdog Wildcats (19-14) would enable Arizona to stretch to 21 its run of successive 20-win seasons, yet another streak unmatched in men’s college basketball today.
“That would mean a lot, of course, but more than that, if we win 20 games that means we’re on to the next round,” guard Jawann McClellan said Wednesday.
Although winning 20 games and reaching the NCAA tournament has become commonplace for Arizona, this has not been a typical year for the Wildcats. Their 14 defeats equals the most by an at-large team since 1985, and their seventh-place finish in the Pac-10 was hardly a source of pride.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine Arizona doing much better after all it endured this season. Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson took a leave of absence on Nov. 4, and injuries to Jerryd Bayless and guard Nic Wise forced interim coach Kevin O’Neill to scramble for depth.
“I think it showed the character of our team, how well we handled it,” said Bayless, whose ailing back no longer is an issue.
Because the Wildcats endured, here they are again in the NCAA tournament.
“It was very important to us. It put a lot of pressure on us, the thought that we weren’t going to make it this year,” forward Jordan Hill said. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, with the coaching changes and our key players being injured, so we just had to keep our heads up and keep fighting. Once we found out we made it, a weight lifted off our shoulders. Now it’s time to get to business.”
Even if they had to travel across the country as a No. 10 seed.
“We’re just happy to be in the tournament,” McClellan said. “Every year, with the scholarships spread out throughout the schools, other schools are getting better. The Pac-10 conference is getting better. So it’s not as easy just to make it to the NCAA tournament now. To keep that streak alive, to keep the party going and to keep playing is a great accomplishment for us.”
West Virginia (24-10) is not as tournament tested as the Wildcats, but the Mountaineers are convinced their run to the NIT championship last year will prove equally beneficial.
“Winning five games back to back and the last two on a neutral court, we’ve got enough experience to match what they have,” Smalligan insisted.
The Mountaineers also expect to benefit from playing in the physical, competitive Big East. West Virginia went 11-7 in the league and upset Connecticut in the conference tournament before falling to Georgetown. Arizona may have its 24-season streak, but West Virginia has a 24 of its own—24 wins.
Coach Bob Huggins has no clue if the Mountaineers are poised to make it 25.
“I can’t figure them out,” he said. “There’s been days I thought we were really ready to play and we came out and didn’t play. And there’s been other days I didn’t think we had a chance and we played really, really hard.
“We rely on making jump shots. And when you rely almost solely offensively on jump shots, you better make them,” Huggins said. “When we don’t make jump shots, we’re not very good.”
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