The PAC-12 tournament is set to get under way this week after the Wildcats split their final weekend series of the year falling on Saturday to Oregon in the finale. They enter the PAC-12 tournament the #1 seed and favorite to win the conference tournament crown. While it would be wonderful to add another title this season to the regular season crown, reality is most Arizona fans have their eyes turned next Sunday and the unveiling of the NCAA tournament bracket this year. Arizona still projects almost unanimously to the #1 seed in the West region and with a conference tournament win would have a very strong #1 overall seed case.
When I was a kid I used to crush puzzles. I'm talking throw a puzzle on the ground and minutes later it was done. My dominance of the puzzle game got so extreme my parents used to have to mix two-three puzzles together to keep me down. However eventually greatness would shine through and those three puzzles would be done. Why do I bring this up in an Arizona Wildcats SB Nation website? Well, because the NCAA tournament often times is a puzzle. Sure every few years you get an overwhelming juggernaut who just overwhelms the field. However everyone certainly would say that isn't the case in 2013-2014 and this year as much as any other in recent years, feels completely wide open.
Even the biggest Wildcats homer would have to acknowledge the Wildcats without Brandon Ashley have a much smaller margin of error. What was probably the best team in college basketball with him now has shown it can be vulnerable at times without him. So this year's tournament for Arizona might be more determined by who is opposite Arizona in the bracket as oppose to how good or bad Arizona actually is. Our goal here today is to construct the perfect bracket for Arizona to get next Sunday that gives the team the best chance to make the Final Four. Once there, everything kind of resets and it is far too difficult to construct three other regions to know the Final Four opponents so once there you just take what you get. To begin understanding what Arizona should be looking for lets consider the team's strengths and weaknesses:
1. Half court Defense- The Wildcats suffocate teams in the half court. Teams usually have to run very crisp offensive sets and hit numerous tough perimeter shots to beat Arizona. You just are very unlikely to score consistently around the rim against the Wildcats. Arizona wants to play you inside a closet, not out in the open. If they can slow you down and force you into the half court, the Wildcats have you where they want you.
2. Offensive Rebounding- Arizona had quite possibly the best front line in college basketball with Ashley in it. It took a big hit but still has the talent in Gordon, Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson to give certain teams problems. The Wildcats rank 11th nationally in rebounding percentage and simply get so many chances at second chance points because of their relentlessness on the glass. The way they control the glass, it is very rare for an opponent to dictate tempo.
3. Offensive Unpredictability- While many would look at the Wildcats' offensive numbers and conclude Arizona isn't a good offensive team I would argue the one problem for them can be half court offense at times. However even that is usually just an issue vs a team they can't overwhelm inside. Teams like Arizona State most notably has success defensively vs the Ashley-less Wildcats because they could slow the Wildcats down and had Bachynski on the interior to present the physical counter to Arizona. Not many teams have that. Yes, Nick Johnson deservedly gets the credit as Arizona's go-to guy but Arizona has been putting three-four different guys in double figures on the same night all year and unlike other teams it isn't always the same three-four. Arizona offensively is versatile enough that game planning for them offensively isn't as easy as some others.
1. Quick, athletic guards- Justin Cobbs, Jahii Carson, Jermaine Marshall, Johnathan Loyd. Quick, what do each of the four guards do above that teams like San Diego State, Duke, Michigan, UCLA, Colorado, etc don't possess? Yup, a quick first step that can take their defender off the dribble with regularity. Arizona loves switching screens and its versatility on defense is what makes it so tough. Guards who can make those switches tougher and can beat their guy off the dribble have given the Wildcats problems.
2. Perimeter Shooting- Everyone knows one of the Wildcats' biggest issues is perimeter shooting. Other than Gabe York (who is hit or miss in his own right) the Wildcats don't have a great three point attack. Often times it doesn't matter but it's hard to win four games, likely three against quality opponents in a short period if the outside jump shots aren't falling. If Arizona runs into a team who can limit their points in the paint and force guys like Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and even T.J McConnell to a lesser extent to consistently hit jumpers, it could be tough.
Those two jump out to me above all others. Yes, many will say "Hello??? Free throws???" and you would be right to say so. However from a navigational standpoint who Arizona plays doesn't have an impact on their free throw shooting. Teams can scheme to defend the three point line. You can't defend a free throw, a team either knocks them down or it doesn't. Arizona just has to get to the line as a team and shoot them with confidence. The others I considered putting on despite the numbers not reflecting it necessarily were foul trouble and turnovers. As a whole Arizona takes care of the ball pretty well and doesn't foul much on a national level. Still when they struggle these two things seem to rear their head.
So with these things address, lets consider a team or two in each seeding range Arizona could draw that would be an ideal draw or a nightmare draw. Considering it is unreasonable to just expect a 12 seed to make the Sweet 16 or a 10 seed to make the Elite Eight for example, the hypothetical situation here assumes that higher seeds hold serve and there's no cinderellas. With that established, here's what I think Arizona wants and doesn't want when it's bracket is revealed next Sunday night: (*On the assumption Arizona retains its one seed and seeded teams are where they're currently projected by ESPN or CBSSports*):
2nd Round (Really the first)
Ideal 16 seed- Anyone. Seriously, it's a 16 seed. There's a reason the upset has never happened. Arizona should win that game regardless.
16 seed to avoid- Nobody. If there's any team the Wildcats would put here then lets just call it a year and get out to the links because the team is going nowhere if it fears any 16 seed.
8/9 seeds to avoid:
Oklahoma State- This should be pretty self explanatory. Oklahoma State is only seeded down here because of its rough stretch, mostly without Marcus Smart. You don't want to play a team with a lottery pick and one-two other NBA guys on it in the second game. Oklahoma State is one of the few teams Arizona could conceivably draw in its second game that has more talent than them. Ideally the Cowboys will play themselves up a couple lines and get out of an 8/9 game. If they don't however, pray they go to another #1's region. The Cowboys have the athletes to play with Arizona and the type of scoring guard that gives Arizona problems.
Baylor- Like Oklahoma State, a team that is hitting its stride and is probably better than its seed. As a whole the Big 12 has been the best conference in college basketball this season and Big 12 teams will be the most tested of any league coming into the dance. Baylor has size on the inside and rebounds at a rate nearly identical to the Wildcats. The Bears could quite possibly erase one of Arizona's biggest strengths while shooting the three ball at near 39%. If averages hold, two teams who would limit second chances could be decided by who shoots it better outside the paint, something Baylor does better than Arizona.
Ideal 8/9 Seeds:
George Washington- The Colonials have a couple nice wins (Creighton, VCU) but as a whole have been subpar against the top of the A-10 and got pelted by a bunch of the major conference non-conference opponents it played. The team ranks poorly rebounding and is susceptible to getting shredded on the glass by the Wildcats. While it is a talented defensive basketball team, the numbers suggest over the course of a 40 minute game Arizona would find a way to score easier than George Washington. A lot of 8/9 seeds right now come from the Big 12 ranks so it's almost just process of elimination. George Washington wouldn't be a lay up but it should be the most manageable 8/9 seed of teams projected around there.
Gonzaga- The Zags may not end up this high but as of now it is projected there by Lunardi. If you've watched Gonzaga much at all this year, this is pretty self explanatory. Gonzaga simply is nowhere near the team it has been in recent years even with another WCC regular season title. Przemek Karnowski, the Zags' big man is slow, has a very limited offensive game and in my opinion would struggle mightily to defend Arizona guards/forwards penetration. Gonzaga doesn't have any guy that Arizona couldn't match up with and is less athletic at nearly every position. Some may say I'm selling Gonzaga short but I think it would be a great matchup for Arizona in the second round and one that would be far more likely to be a runaway then a repeat of the round of 32 classic these teams played in 2003.
4/5 seeds to avoid:
Creighton- There's a theory I've been working on for a while and I'll admit it's still in the early stages without much supporting research. It goes a little something like this: You don't want to play the best player in college basketball if you don't have to. Creighton is the most efficient offense in all of college basketball. They can score at the rim, they can blitz teams from three, they have veterans all over and they're well-coached. Creighton is a PROBLEM and look no further than what they did to Villanova twice to see what they're capable of. Arizona is arguably the best defense in college basketball but teams like UCLA, Oregon and Michigan who can push tempo did well against the Wildcats. Creighton's offense is like those teams on steroids. Plus, do you really want to be the team that could end Dougie McBuckets' career? I don't.
Uconn- A sneaky team that people may wonder why. It goes back to my #1 weakness for Arizona and its ability to handle certain guards. As good as McConnell and Johnson are defensively, Shabazz Napier in a one and done format would TERRIFY me. The Huskies guard is an All-American candidate who when he is cooking is one of the top 5 players in the country. Boatright to a lesser extent would concern me and Uconn has a way at times of just turning the game into streetball which is not what Arizona wants. Uconn shoots the three well and has an interior defender in Amida Brimah who can protect the rim and offer resistance to Kaleb Tarczewski on the inside. Arizona would likely become more of a jump shooting team against Uconn and that just isn't playing to their strengths.
Michigan State- The Spartans have struggled down the stretch and could play themselves up out of the 4/5 region but for now this is actually a popular landing spot for one of the preseason title favorites. Tom Izzo is obviously one of the elite coaches in college hoops and like Miller almost always has his teams ready in March. This is a veteran group that went to the Sweet Sixteen a year ago, has elite guard play and a big man in Adrien Payne who physically would be very difficult for an Arizona frontline to defend. Arizona simply could not afford to lose Gordon or Tarczewski to foul trouble in this game and survive. There's a chance this team is just massively overhyped and never gets it together and maybe that is the case. But do you really want to find out? Or do you trust Izzo's history and wish another unfortunate 1 seed this hypothetical Sweet 16 matchup?
Ideal 4/5 Seeds
San Diego State- Though it is not likely Arizona will draw San Diego State in a Sweet 16 mathcup the possibility is still there. San Diego State is basically Arizona Lite. It's a similar, less talented version of Arizona. The differences being the Aztecs don't have the depth of weapons Arizona does. Xavier Thames can be a force when he's going well but San Diego State simply struggles far too much to score when he's not great. Arizona won this game already on the road (with Ashley) and would have film on the Aztecs already. Keep in mind Arizona killed San Diego State on the boards the first time and if not for some seriously favorable whistles (SDST shot 29 free throws), the Aztecs might not have reached 50 points. Arizona defensively would likely give San Diego State fits again and as tough as the Aztecs are and as good as Steve Fisher is, I think this is a matchup you'd sign up for to kick start the second weekend.
Ohio State- I had written Saint Louis into this spot, then the Billikens went out and lost to St. Bonaventure and now a 4/5 seed seems like a pipe dream for St. Louis. Insert Ohio State instead and perhaps a rematch of last year's Sweet 16 game. Ohio State does enough things well to argue Arizona would want to avoid them. Defensively they're very strong and in the half court where Arizona can struggle it may be a bit of a root canal game. With that said, much like the Aztecs the Buckeyes have been dreadful on offense at times and really don't have a ton of guys you can give the ball to and ask for a basket. Ohio State plays at a similar tempo to Arizona and rarely gets into up-tempo games. Arizona would have plenty of success in my opinion in half court defense against this Buckeyes offense. Arizona is better than the team a year ago and Ohio State isn't as good. It wouldn't upset me to see Ohio State in a Sweet 16 matchup.
2/3 Seeds to Fear
Iowa State- I type this as I'm watching Kansas-Iowa State so that helps the Cyclones case but I've been weary of this team as a potential Arizona opponent for a while. The Cyclones would make things very challenging on the Wildcats defense with their ability to pull their big men out and shoot the three. Iowa State simply can cook you from three and how Tarc would fare trying to guard one of these guys is where the biggest question mark for me lies. Their style of play invites you into a track meet and while Arizona is better on the fast break, it could get to the point where Arizona is playing a game completely out of its element. Deandre Kane and Melvin Ejim give the Cyclones one of the better one-two punches in the country with Kane able to do a little bit of everything. It's a style of play that is brutal to prepare for and very unique. We almost got this matchup last year, lets pass on a makeup date.
Louisville- I spent a good portion of this season not buying Louisville as a serious contender. It seemed like they had lost too much from the Final Four teams of the past two years and were move of a 15-20 caliber team than top 10. However recently the Cardinals have turned it around and will enter the NCAA tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country. Russ Smith has been playing at an All-American level and much like Napier and McDermitt who I mentioned earlier, Smith is a guy in a one and done format who should worry you (as much as he worries Louisville fans) with his erratic but sizzling play at times. Add in a coach like Rick Pitino who is one of the best the sport offers with the experience of two Final Four runs and a national title a year ago and Louisville could be a tough out once the tourney hits.
Ideal 2/3 Seeds
Cincinnati- Noticing a trend yet? If you're a slow it down, half court, defensive basketball team I just don't think you'll beat Arizona at its game. Cincinnati does this as well as most teams in the country playing ugly, backyard, rough basketball games generally in the fifties. You're going to be in for a grind and like Arizona, very few teams are going to get Cincy to play a game other than the one it wants to play. So where is the difference in this game? For me again it is on offense where the Wildcats have the formidable front line as well as a solid backcourt tandem to throw at the Bearcats defense. Sean Kilpatrick is the best offensive player either team possesses but this team struggles if he's not on his A game. Arizona despite its reputation as a defensive monster is still a respectable offensive team. Cincy grinds its teeth to get to 50 points. On the west coast where this game would likely be, with the fan edge on top of it Arizona would have a handful of edges that I think would prove too much for Cincinnati.
Villanova- I could drag this out and go into big detail but let me get straight to the point: I think Villanova is complete frauds. I think the east coast Wildcats are as much a product of their schedule as anything else. They got pelted by Syracuse. They got drilled twice by Creighton. The Iowa win from early in the year no longer looks special and they beat Kansas during a time when Kansas was losing frequently, taking a handful of losses before Big 12 play. I doubt Villanova makes it to an Elite Eight to begin with, but if they ever did, I'd love to have them out West.
That's how I see it. I think come Sunday these are the types of matchups we should be hoping for and looking to avoid. We'll see what the committee gives us but it's been over 15 years since the Wildcats brought the title back to Tucson. It was a LONG wait after getting gut-punched by the Buckeyes. The revenge tour starts in about a week.