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Arizona basketball: Sean Miller is ‘really happy’ with the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule

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Miller does wish Arizona had better home games, though

NCAA Basketball: Grand Canyon at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats’ non-conference schedule, especially the slate of games in McKale Center, has drawn the ire of criticism this season.

On Tuesday, the Wildcats (10-2) host the New Mexico Lobos in their non-conference finale, a team in which Sean Miller said is the best team on Arizona’s home non-conference schedule.

The Lobos are the No. 113 team in college basketball, per Kenpom.com, so that sort of says it all about how uninspiring the team’s home slate was during non-conference play.

As a whole, Arizona’s non-conference strength of schedule places at No. 129 in the country, per Kenpom.com.

The Wildcats’ neutral site games make their non-conference schedule a bit more palatable, though, specifically the games against Michigan State, Butler, Gonzaga, and Texas A&M.

Butler and Gonzaga are both top-20 teams, plus Texas A&M is No. 37, according to KenPom.com. Michigan State is all the way down at No. 55, but it wasn’t as banged up against Arizona as it is now, not to mention the Spartans are a national brand.

Arizona’s 2016 non-conference schedule (click to enlarge)

Still, Miller admits he would have liked to have better games in McKale Center this season, but it just didn’t work out that way. Plus, neutral site games are becoming a commonality, so scheduling quality home-and-home series can be difficult.

“College basketball has really, really changed over the last decade and scheduling has as well,” Miller said Monday at his weekly press conference. “I would love to have even more home and away series. We’re not shying away from that, but all you guys have to do is look and see this weekend, where did Kentucky and North Carolina play? Where did UCLA and Ohio State play? That’s the culture of college basketball. This year, we’ve played more non-conference games in a neutral venue than maybe we would have liked, but that allowed our schedule to be really good. If you look at our schedule, the teams we’ve played, the balance, especially adding New Mexico to the schedule. I’m really happy with the way we scheduled.”

The fans are the ones that lose in this case. UA fans are going through an entire non-conference schedule without seeing one high-caliber team come through McKale Center.

And, according to the current polls, the first time a ranked opponent will make its way into McKale Center is on Feb. 23 when the No. 23 USC Trojans come to town — that’s the last home series of the entire season.

“I just wish for our fanbase that we would’ve had maybe one or two more (games) here at home,” Miller said. “I would love the fact if we didn’t have a 9 p.m. start (against Grand Canyon) or maybe a couple more weekend home games, but that’s how it fell this year. Next year, I think it returns back to maybe a little more how it used to be. But, even next year, it’s not easy to establish these home and away series because the marquee programs are playing more neutral (site) games than ever before. I watched Davidson and Kansas; they weren’t playing in Lawrence, Kansas. They were playing in Kansas City.”

From Miller’s standpoint, the most important thing about his team’s schedule is whether or not it prepares them for conference play and the NCAA Tournament.

With that in mind, the UA head coach believes this non-conference schedule has checked all the boxes, even if the home schedule has been underwhelming.

“When I think of our schedule, even Grand Canyon for example, we learned a lot by playing that game,” Miller said. “They were as physical and tough-minded as any team we’ve played. We got better, we improved as a team because we played them.

“The Texas A&M game, confidence, the end of the game, the way it finished, playing against somebody like a Tyler Davis, it’s going to prepare us for a lot of things after Christmas for sure.”

Arizona begins Pac-12 conference play on Dec. 30 against the California Golden Bears in Berkeley.


You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire