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Why Arizona is primed for success in the Wooden Legacy tournament

NCAA Basketball: Long Beach State at Arizona Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball teams are permitted to compete in one multi-team event during the non-conference season. For the Arizona Wildcats this year that means a trip to the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, California.

These early-season tournaments have not been kind to the Wildcats the last couple of years. Last season, they were overmatched at the Maui Invitational, where they went 1-2 including a pair of blowout losses.

The year prior, Arizona entered Battle 4 Atlantis as the No. 3 team in the country, but went 0-3 in the Bahamas and dropped out of the Top 25 the following week. A total meltdown.

Arizona has not won an early-season tournament since winning the Maui in 2014-15, but is hoping to find better results in Southern California where it will play three games in four days at the Anaheim Convention Center starting Thursday at 9 p.m. MST against the Pepperdine Waves.

“You gotta be ready to go,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “In the last two years in particular, we played in some heavyweight tournaments. Last year, you can just put that up and just say we did the best we could because of the field and what we had, and where we were, it wasn’t going to be a fair fight.

“And I think we’re more ready this time around. And we’ve talked a little bit about it to our guys that we want to get back to playing well in these types of tournaments.”

Here is why you should expect that to happen in Anaheim.

A weaker field

When I asked Miller if anything stands out about the teams in the Wooden Legacy tournament, he said “not really.”

He said that in the context that he is only focused on Pepperdine since that’s the only team Arizona is guaranteed to play in Anaheim, but it would have been a suitable answer in a different context, too.

Let’s face it, the Wooden Legacy isn’t exactly teeming with talent. Here is how the field stands according to its KenPom ratings:

  • Arizona (12)
  • Providence (32)
  • Wake Forest (89)
  • Penn (109)
  • Pepperdine (123)
  • UCF (124)
  • College of Charleston (146)
  • Long Beach State (287)

Yes, anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament, but it would be downright disappointing if the Wildcats don’t go 3-0 in Anaheim. Providence is the only squad in Arizona’s realm, and it already has two losses (to Northwestern and Penn).

In fact, the only non-Arizona team in the Wooden Legacy that doesn’t have multiple losses is UCF, who is 3-1 with single-digit wins against Prairie View A&M, Illinois State, and College of Charleston and a 79-70 road loss to Miami (FL).

Assuming the Wildcats beat Pepperdine, they will either face the Knights or Penn in the second round. Penn lost by double figures to Rice and Lafayette (PA).

Fan support

Aside from Arizona, these schools are traveling to Anaheim from the East Coast and/or don’t have particularly big fan bases, meaning there should be a sea of Wildcat fans at the 6,000-plus-seat Anaheim Convention Center.

That should give the team a nice homecourt advantage and help it get over some of those first-road-game jitters.

“Every team’s kind of facing the same thing and I think the fact that we’re in Anaheim, my hope is that we have a lot of our fans there, which should maybe cushion the fact that we’re not playing in front of 14,000 people here at McKale,” Miller said. “But it is different and I think for us to not acknowledge that would be foolish, especially in our case with so many new faces.”

Freshmen are used to the big stage

Yes, Arizona has a lot of new faces, but they are used to the big stage. Transfers Max Hazzard and Jemarl Baker Jr. played in the NCAA Tournament at their previous schools, while freshmen Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Zeke Nnaji, and Christian Koloko all won state championships in high school. Not to mention Mannion and Green played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and have experience at the international level.

And as we saw against Illinois—when Mannion, Green, and Nnaji scored 23, 20 and 19 points, respectively—they all seem to elevate their games when the stakes get higher, so the Wooden Legacy isn’t something they should be overwhelmed by.

“They’re used to big crowds. They’ve played everywhere in the world, not just the country,” Miller said. “So I think they come to us more ready than your normal freshmen.”

Improved depth and health

In 2016-17 and 2017-18, Arizona was notably short-handed in its early-season tournament. Allonzo Trier was suspended in 2016-17 when Arizona lost to Butler in the Las Vegas Invitational championship game and Rawle Alkins was out with a broken foot during Battle 4 Atlantis in 2017-18. The Wildcats were forced to plug in guys who weren’t ready or shouldn’t have been playing big minutes, and it cost them dearly.

This time, the only player missing from Arizona’s typical rotation is the recently-dismissed Devonaire Doutrive. Fortunately, the Wildcats have the talent to compensate for it — and the bodies to handle the rigors that come with playing three games in four days.

“It’s not an easy thing in November to play well away from home,” Miller said. “It’s really good competition. But we have depth, we have some older guys that, even though they’re new faces, have been in these types of tournaments away from home. We’re relying on them and also we have great confidence in our freshmen.”