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Arizona basketball: Wildcats have a ‘responsibility’ to play other teams in the West

Sean Miller says it’s in the Wildcats’ best interest to play the top teams in the West

New Mexico v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Sean Miller was “really happy” how the Arizona Wildcats’ non-conference schedule shook out this season, and not just because of the quality of opponents and the wide variety of styles his team played against.

Miller believes Arizona has a responsibility to compete against the other top programs in the West, and he thinks the Wildcats did that this season and in recent years, in general.

For example, in recent seasons Arizona has played schools like San Diego State, UNLV, UTEP, and New Mexico State, and this season the Wildcats played Gonzaga, Grand Canyon, Texas A&M, and New Mexico.

“I think it makes sense. First of all, you have to take care of your side of the United States,” Miller said. “Not playing Gonzaga doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because Gonzaga is one of the elite programs in the game. They’re located on this side of the country. It makes sense a lot of sense for our program to play them. You get better, it’s a tremendous game. If you ever win the game, it’s a tremendous win. If you lose it, it’s a great loss if there is such a thing. It prepares you for the rest of your schedule.

“And then the region, we’ve played at New Mexico State, we’ve played at UTEP, we’ve played at UNLV, we’ve welcomed Grand Canyon by playing them. We’ve played NAU virtually every year. I think there’s a responsibility that you want to play those universities and basketball programs that are in the southwest and I think obviously New Mexico is a program that speaks for itself. I know they have a tremendous homecourt. To renew it, it’s not necessarily a favor to them just like it wasn’t favor to play Grand Canyon. It’s in our team’s and program’s best interest to play them. The travel that’s involved, the cost for both teams makes a lot of sense, so I think it’s something that we’ve had our eye on for sometime. One of the reasons that it’s taken some time to get this game with (New Mexico) is that we had San Diego State and UNLV on the schedule for a number of years. You don’t want to play too many teams from the same conference, so that’s why it took some time.”

Arizona is set to face New Mexico again next season, with that contest being on the road. That rivalry was shelved in the late 1990s after Lute Olson had issue with the clock management in Albuquerque, but Miller felt it was worth reviving given the stature — and proximity — of New Mexico’s program.

“New Mexico is a high major program,” Miller said. “There’s those high major programs that they’re checking in with an RPI at 200 or 300. They may have the name of the conference on their warm ups but they’re not a quality team. New Mexico is a quality team, a quality program. If you look at the last five years of who they are, they represent high major basketball. They’re well-coached, they do things the right way. They have one of the most phenomenal home courts in the country. They draw a passionate fanbase. They’re a perennial postseason team, they play high majors in non-conference, they compete for their regular season championship, they have players on their roster who leave and become NBA players.

“We didn’t schedule them to renew something that once was. We scheduled them because it makes a lot of sense for our current team.”

Unfortunately, not many of the nation’s best teams (outside of the Pac-12) are in the West, so scheduling teams from the region won’t lead to the toughest non-conference schedule possible. Still, Miller thinks it’s worthwhile — and Arizona’s responsibility — to play them, nonetheless.

Plus, the Wildcats have plenty of games against the nation’s best teams coming up anyway. In 2018, for instance, Arizona is one of eight teams participating in the toughest Maui Invitational field in the tournament’s history. So it’s not like Miller’s emphasis on playing teams from the West is exactly hindering Arizona from matching up against the best of the best.

On a side note, the best West Coast team Arizona hasn’t played in Miller’s tenure is Saint Mary’s, which is currently the 19th-ranked team in the country and a perennial NCAA Tournament team. I know the two teams have played against each other in a “secret scrimmage”, but it is interesting that they haven’t matched up in the regular season yet.

Miller did say he doesn’t like to schedule so many teams from the same conference, so maybe Arizona’s yearly matchup with Gonzaga prevents that.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire for more Arizona basketball coverage.