Considering Arizona's past success in the NIT Season Tip-Off, it's understandable why the fourth-ranked Wildcats are excited about playing in New York City.
They'll look to remain undefeated Wednesday night when facing Drexel in the tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
Making its fifth appearance in this event, Arizona (5-0) won the tournament in 1990, 1995 and 1999 before finishing second to Wake Forest in 2004. Those three titles are tied with Syracuse for second-most behind the four won by Duke, which Arizona could face in Friday's championship game in an arena that's been kind to the Wildcats program.
"I mean, it's big. Who wouldn't want to play in MSG?" said junior guard Nick Johnson, who averages a team-leading 16.8 points on 58.8 percent shooting. "I mean, it's the biggest stage in basketball - period. We knew that coming into the season."
This matchup comes before the sixth-ranked Blue Devils meet Alabama in the other semifinal.
"This is one of the most prestigious tournaments that college basketball has," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "To play in Madison Square Garden is something that our players will remember forever."
Though this event provides an opportunity for the Wildcats to show they are truly among the nation's elite, Miller is eager to see how his team looks while playing for the first time since an 87-59 win over Rhode Island last Tuesday.
"We're more focused on being a better team," said Miller, who guided the Wildcats to a 14-0 start last season. "Improvement is the buzz word around our program. How much better can we get from our last basketball game against Rhode Island.
"Making sure we're at our best."
Arizona has played at a high level while averaging 84.0 points and shooting 54.4 percent against a favorable early schedule.
Though star freshman Aaron Gordon (13.0 points, 9.0 rebounds per game) garners plenty of attention, Johnson has averaged 19.7 points in the last three games and had 20 with 10 rebounds and six assists against the Rams.
"Each year that he's been at Arizona he's improved," Miller said of Johnson. "I look at him becoming an all-conference player."
Opponents, meanwhile, are shooting 33.3 percent and have yet to score more than 62 points against the Wildcats.
"We've showed glimpses of being a very good defensive team," Miller said. "For us, we need to be a dominant defensive team to get where we want to get to. That's very hard to do."
Miller also knows the Wildcats can't afford to look ahead to a possible showdown with Duke.
Arizona has never faced Drexel (3-1), which already nearly upset a ranked Pac-12 team this season. The Dragons cut an 11-point, second-half deficit against then-No. 22 UCLA down to one with less than three minutes to play before losing 72-67 on Nov. 8.
Coach Bruiser Flint's team has since won three in a row and has been off since winning 70-59 at Rutgers last Tuesday. Key reserve Tavon Allen had a game-high 21 points, increasing his average to 13.3, as leading scorer Chris Fouch was held to a season-low 10 while dealing with foul trouble.
Fouch, a senior guard and Bronx native, is averaging 17.3 points to lead four Drexel players scoring at least 12.3 per contest.
"They're not pretty good, they're really good," Miller said. "They have a toughness I wish we had right now. If we go to Madison Square Garden with anything else on our mind then we will be playing in the consolation game Friday."
Drexel has held its first four opponents to 24.6 percent from 3-point range.
Arizona leads the Pac-12 in 3-point accuracy at 42.1 percent, led by sophomore Gabe York going 12 for 23.
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