MIAMI (AP)—Arizona forward Jordan Hill described the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament opener in the simplest of terms.
“It’s all the B’s,” Hill said. “All the biggests.”
Biggest opponent, too.
A big man himself at 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, Hill will be dwarfed by 7-2, 265-pounder Luke Nevill on Friday when Arizona (19-13) meets Utah (24-9) in a first-round Midwest regional matchup. Hill has never played anyone as tall as Nevill, and says he can’t wait for the challenge.
“We’ve all seen a good amount of clips on him,” Hill said. “He’s a pretty good player. He’s real long, real big—way bigger than me.”
Hill averages 18.5 points and 11 rebounds, yet his biggest chore Friday might come on the defensive end. If he can find a way to elevate to the level of Nevill—who averages 16.9 points and 9.1 rebounds on 61 percent shooting—the Wildcats might be in good shape; they were 8-1 when Hill blocked three or more shots in a game this season, 10-12 when he didn’t.
It’s the matchup getting plenty of attention, but Nevill shook off any notion that this is a glorified game of 1-on-1 for a trip to the second round.
“I don’t need to have, you know, a stellar game offensively for us to be successful,” Nevill said. “You know, defensively, I have to have a great game, but offensively we have a great bunch of shooters. We can score from a lot of different areas on the floor. You know, offensively, I’m just going to go out there and do what I have to do to win.”
It’s the 49th meeting between the schools, the first since 2005, and probably one of the very few where both teams might be able to make a case for being slighted.
Arizona was one of the last teams into the tournament, getting into the field for the 25th straight year amid some outcry that other schools were more deserving of an at-large berth. Utah drew a No. 5 seed after winning the Mountain West title, yet there’s no shortage of experts—not to mention oddsmakers—saying the Utes will lose Friday.
Go figure, says interim Arizona coach Russ Pennell.
“It’s amazing people are critical of us being in and then they fill out their bracket and they move us forward,” Pennell said. “Again, those things have very little, if anything, to do with us playing, and it comes down to us putting the ball in the basket and stopping them from doing it.”
If there’s someone who can attest to how little seeding means in the postseason, it’s Utah coach Jim Boylen.
He was an assistant with the Houston Rockets in 1995, when they were the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs and wound up winning nine times on the road on the way to their second straight NBA title.
“When you play a team like Arizona that has tradition and a national kind of following, they assume that it’s a game maybe that we should not be picked in,” Boylen said. “You know, we’ve been facing that stuff all year. But I think that’s what’s happened. All I can tell you is we’ll be ready to play.”
Boylen’s players almost seem to wear the disrespected label with pride.
“We were picked fourth in our conference, and we ended up being tied for first. I don’t think anybody picked us to win the conference tournament, and we ended up winning that,” said Shaun Green, the Utes’ top reserve. “Now we’re underdogs it seems like again for the NCAA tournament, and that’s fine. I mean, we’ve been that all year.”
One thing’s probably certain: Few people in Australia, Nevill’s homeland, are aware of who’s the underdog or the favorite in this one.
The NCAAs aren’t exactly a big deal to Aussies, and Nevill himself said he didn’t know much about the tournament before coming to the United States five years ago.
As a redshirt, he accompanied Utah into the Sweet 16 his first season in Salt Lake City. He’s now two wins away from getting there again, and his mom— who visited twice from Australia this year—will be in Miami to see if her son can make it happen.
“It has become a huge deal to me, and definitely to Utah and the program,” Nevill said. “I take great pride in making the tournament, and it’s a huge accomplishment for us as seniors to be able to do that. It wasn’t a big deal before, but it’s definitely a big deal now.”