March is approaching and the Arizona Wildcats are in unfamiliar territory.
Strapped with a 14-10 record, a dearth of quality wins, and their first five-game losing streak in 35 years, the Wildcats have virtually zero shot at earning an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Still, not all is lost with seven regular season games remaining. Here are some things the Wildcats can accomplish in the final month of a lost season.
It’s a long shot, but the Wildcats can still make the NCAA Tournament by putting together one great week of basketball and winning the Pac-12 Tournament to become the conference’s automatic qualifier.
That will require winning four games in four days or three games in three days, a tall task for a team that hasn’t won a game since Jan. 19.
Never say never though, right? In this depleted Pac-12, anything seems possible.
A top-four seed
The Wildcats can boost their slim chances of winning the Pac-12 Tournament by earning a top-four seed.
That seemed like a given after they went 4-0 to begin league play, but they are 1-6 in their last seven games, dropping into a four-way tie for seventh.
Arizona is five games behind first-place Washington, but only two games behind ASU, Oregon State, and Utah, who are tied for second.
KenPom projects Arizona will finish 9-9 in conference play in a five-way tie for sixth. Oregon State, Oregon and Utah are projected to finish in a three-way tie for third at 10-8, so the Wildcats aren’t really that far from where they need to be for a top-four seed.
The upcoming road games against Colorado and Utah should give us a better idea of how realistic Arizona’s chances are of finishing near the top of conference. Drop both in the Rocky Mountains and it’s no longer doable.
That NIT $$$
If Arizona does fall short of the NCAA Tournament, it could still earn a bid from another postseason tournament such as the NIT, CBI or CIT if it finishes the season .500 or better.
However, we can probably rule out Arizona having any interest playing in the CBI or CIT since you have to pay to host home games in those tournaments. Whereas if the Wildcats make the NIT and get the right to host, they would reap the monetary benefits of hosting up to three more home games.
That extra cash wouldn’t hurt considering all the money Arizona has spent lately on facilities and Rich Rodriguez’s $6.3 million buyout.
Even if Arizona makes the NIT but is not given the option to host, one could argue it would still be worth participating since it would allow seniors like Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther to have one more go at it, while Arizona’s underclassmen would have at least one more game and a week of practice to develop.
The downside is no one actually cares about the NIT, especially Arizona fans who have only seen the Wildcats miss the NCAA Tournament twice since 1984-85. The last time Arizona hosted the NIT — 2012 against Bucknell — the attendance was 8,433, roughly 6,000 fans fewer than the Wildcats regularly average.
And do you remember happened in that game? Arizona lost by 11. The last thing the Wildcats need right now is to get beaten by a mid-major, making this bad season even worse.
Then again, does it really get worse than getting blown out by Washington State?
Developing the underclassmen
You see it a lot in the NBA, but you don’t see it much, if ever, in college basketball — a team sacrificing wins so that its younger players can get real-game experience.
But it is possible Arizona goes that route by giving more playing time to guys like Ira Lee, Devonaire Doutrive and Alex Barcello and fewer minutes to veterans like Coleman, Luther, and Dylan Smith.
One gripe people have about Sean Miller is that he doesn’t always let young players play through their mistakes, which then causes them to be tentative.
Perhaps if guys like Lee, Doutrive and Barcello knew they were going to play starter minutes no matter how they perform, it would loosen them up and improve their performance.
At the same time, Miller’s job isn’t as safe as it once was and I’m not sure it would be wise for him to risk being blown out a few more times just so he can get young players some run.
It also wouldn’t be fair to a senior like Coleman, who surely wants to make the most of his final collegiate games.
Weeding out the rest
That said, one goal Arizona should have the rest of this season is to find out which players are worth sticking with moving forward.
Assuming the prized 2019 recruiting class makes it to campus, almost all five guys (and counting) will have substantial roles from day one. At least two of them, Nico Mannion and Josh Green, will be starters.
That means most of the returning players will pushed aside into lesser roles or maybe even out of the program altogether should they want more playing time.
Miller also said the Wildcats will be adding at least one more player this spring, but they would need to clear a scholarship to do that, meaning at least one transfer seems imminent.
Brandon Williams and Chase Jeter, should he spurn the pros, certainly have a place on next year’s team. The rest of the roster shouldn’t get so comfortable.