“I don't really have to remind them a lot of it,” UA head coach Sean Miller said.
“It’s a healthy respect and a healthy reminder of how quickly the season can end. We’ve had quite a few players that have reflected on that moment through the offseason and even this year.”
The Wildcats, a team usually making a run into the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight, failed to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in four years, falling 65-55 to the Shockers to open tournament play.
It still stings.
“Last year we faced adversity, we know how it feels to lose in the first round,” senior guard Kadeem Allen said. “You have to remind the young guys how easy it is to get knocked off.”
On Thursday, the Wildcats will look to avoid a similar fate.
Arizona faces the 15th-seeded North Dakota Fighting Hawks in Salt Lake City to begin this season’s NCAA Tournament play. Even though the Wildcats won the Pac-12 Tournament and are playing what Miller considers to be “probably the best basketball” they have played all year, they won’t take North Dakota — or anyone — lightly.
They know better after last year’s debacle.
“Wichita State last year, they made our program better, they really did,” Miller said.
“What I mean by that, it's not just that we lost in the first round. Sometimes that happens, as much as nobody ever wants to have that first-round exit, this isn't a seven-game series tournament. This is you have to be at your best in that first 40 minutes or the next 40 may never come.
“Wichita State a year ago, they were bigger, stronger, they were better coached. They were more ready. They were tougher. In the first eight minutes of that game it was over. And just because you're from the Pac-12 or, in our case, that we had gone deep in this tournament in previous years doesn't mean that it's going to happen again. Each year is different.”
This year, Miller has felt Arizona has been prepared to play in each and every game this season — even in all four of its losses (yes, the Oregon game is included).
It has served as a source of pride for both Miller and his players, but it’s now that time of year when one misstep can end a team’s season.
“In the tournament there's a lot of upsets,” Allen said. “Actually, me and Parker [Jackson-Cartwright] talked about it at practice how we have to keep reminding these guys that any game you can get knocked off.”
“Just like every other game, go in with a mindset and perspective to play hard and win the ballgame,” the senior leader said. “Come prepared, focus, and do what we do.”
The Wildcats didn’t do that against Wichita State last year and the team’s returning players, like Allen and Jackson-Cartwright, were left with an empty feeling that still resonates to this day.
They don’t want to experience that again.
“I will tell you that there's a lot of different things that game taught us,” Miller said. “And hopefully the lessons learned from a year ago will help us [against North Dakota].”
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