Arizona takes a beating before hitting court

Jeff Passan

MIAMI – Earlier this week during a workout in a hotel gym, Arizona guard Zane Johnson ran into a group of spring breakers who recognized him. They introduced themselves, exchanged pleasantries, then told Johnson his team had absolutely no business in the NCAA tournament.

"They said it to my face," Johnson said. "I mean, I guess that's pretty impressive. Most people just talk behind our backs."

The prattle is spirited, coming not just from armchair bracketologists but players from other teams, like Syracuse guard Andy Rautins, who said, "I was a little disappointed to see Arizona get in, to be honest with you."

Honesty seems standard. Slagging the Wildcats is easy business, after all, as they received the last at-large bid in this season's tournament, and thus inherited the yearly mantel of The Most Nitpicked Team in America. The NCAA selection committee's belief in Arizona as a No. 12 seed stirred all kinds of emotion – the gamut runs from envious to enraged – and the Wildcats can justify it only with a win against fifth-seeded Utah on Friday night in a Midwest Region first-round game.

"We're in. We're here. Get over it," Arizona forward Fendi Onobun said. "Forget about it. Stop saying it. It's over. We. Are. In."

But. Wait. Now. It's not that simple. Just because a bunch of men sequester themselves and get their pizza-grease-stained fingers all over papers with RPI and road records and strength of schedule and other important numbers doesn't say whether a team deserved to get in. It just says that the formula the NCAA happens to use ascribes that team as the most worthy.

And even then it's nebulous. Arizona's RPI, the catch-all number that's something of an accurate indicator of a team's strength, ranked 62nd. San Diego State's was 34th, Creighton's 40th and Saint Mary's 48th. And while the latter two's strength of schedule sat in the hundreds compared to Arizona's 34th-ranked slate, San Diego State was 40th and Virginia Tech – also ahead of the Wildcats in the RPI – 25th.

So of course there's consternation, and well-deserved at that, because of Arizona's record: 19-13. That is not ugly. It is repugnant. Even Arizona's players were skeptical that the school would make its 25th consecutive tournament, two off the record held by North Carolina.

And Nerdus, the god of bracketology, delivered.

"I was scared," Onobun said. "Of course I was. I didn't think we were going to get in. But I believe in divine intervention."

And Nerdus, the god of bracketology, delivered.

Arizona had gathered in a conference room at the McKale Center to watch the selection show. Even though they won seven consecutive Pac-10 games at midseason and had out-of-conference wins against Kansas and Gonzaga, the Wildcats understood that a calamitous final three weeks could have doomed them. They lost five of six. They bombed out of the conference tournament in one game. They played like an NIT team.

Yet there they were, among the first teams called, a relief compared to a year earlier when Arizona straddled the bubble and waited until the final bracket to hear its name revealed. That team played the third-hardest schedule in the country to justify its 19-14 record and sub-.500 showing in the Pac-10. This team doesn't have quite the number of excuses.

Sure, interim coach Russ Pennell was announcing Arizona State games on radio last season and took over following Lute Olson's resignation and assistant Mike Dunlap turning down the gig. Still, it's difficult to justify a team with two first-round talents – forward Jordan Hill, a likely top-five pick, and swingman Chase Budinger, who also could go in the lottery – finishing below .500 in its conference, with a weaker schedule than the previous season, and cracking the field of 65.

It was no surprise, then, that players jumped up on tables and ran around the room and coaches started hugging upon seeing "Arizona" popping up on the TV screen. Equal and opposite reactions sprouted up around the country.


Arizona coach Russ Pennell yells directions to his team against Arizona State at the Pac-10 men's tournament on Thursday, March 12, 2009. Arizona State won 68-56.

(AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

"I was surprised," said Luke Nevill, Utah's 7-foot-2 center. "There were a few more teams that were better than Arizona, strength of schedule- and record-wise. So … yeah. I mean, San Diego State."

The team Utah beat 52-50 in the Mountain West Conference tournament final.

"There's no reason San Diego State shouldn't be in this tournament," Utah guard Lawrence Borha said. "They got snubbed."

By Arizona?

"Well," Borha said, "they were the last ones in, right?"

Arizona is like a lingering scab, tempting to pick at and an easy mark and, yes, rather horrid to see. And still, the spread in Las Vegas on this game, a 5 vs. 12, is Utah by 1½ points, closer than any of the remaining games, including two 8 vs. 9s.

It's Arizona against the world. Well, Arizona and degenerate gamblers.

That's how the Wildcats must approach this, at least. Use the skeptics as motivation. Feed off it. Prove them wrong. Show that Arizona isn't a program descending into mediocrity but one just as proud as in the days of four Final Fours in 14 years.

"So Utah thinks San Diego State should've been in, huh?" Hill said.

He's not happy.

"That sounds like somebody's scared of us," said Hill, whose team beat San Diego State by 13 in December. "I'm sorry, but it sounds like they're intimidated. Can't do nothing about who the NCAA picked."

Except whine and complain and piss and moan and bellyache and second-guess and castigate the number-beholden shlubs on the committee.

Or win. Definitely win.