No longer mired in their worst losing streak since the early 1980s, the Arizona Wildcats head into their final road trip of the season with a little momentum after sweeping Cal and Stanford at home.
And with the return of Brandon Williams giving Arizona a full compliment (relatively speaking) of player for the first time since mid-January, it stands to reason a run could be made.
Maybe, even, all the way to the NCAA tournament?
Sure, that’s within the realm of possibility, but still only as the Pac-12’s automatic qualifier. Arizona’s NET ranking is 82nd, still far from even being considered for an at-large bid by the NCAA selection committee.
But each win between now and Selection Sunday does improve Arizona’s standing in the eyes of a different brain trust: the one that picks the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) field.
For those who aren’t familiar—or who refuse to acknowledge any tournament other than the Big Dance—the NIT is a 32-team event that’s operated by the NCAA and, at one time, was considered the more prominent postseason tourney. Now it’s viewed as more of a consolation prize, one that can be treated as a swan song for veteran teams or a potential springboard for youth-laden squads.
Arizona has appeared in the NIT four times, most recently in 2012 when it lost at home to Bucknell in the first round. The Wildcats looked completely disinterested in playing that game, shooting 35.4 percent only four days after falling to Colorado in the Pac-12 tourney final.
The similarities between that team and the current one are many.
The 2012 squad started two seniors (guard Kyle Fogg and forward Jesse Perry) as well as junior forward Solomon Hill, sophomore guard Jordin Mayes and freshman guard Nick Johnson. A thin bench, decimated by injuries and other issues, only saw two reserves see action in the final game.
Not long after the season ended a pair of players (guard Josiah Turner and center Kyryl Natyazhko) left the program ahead of the arrival of a vaunted recruiting class that included Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York.
Asked if Arizona would accept an NIT bid, coach Sean Miller said “we’re not there yet. That’s kind of results-driven. That’s for you guys to speculate about and report.”
Arizona was a No. 1 seed in the 2012 NIT, when broadcast partner ESPN had more of a say in how the tourney was laid out in an effort to beef up ratings. The NCAA has taken over that part of the process, almost seeding the NIT like an extension of the NCAA tournament.
With that in mind, the Wildcats might not be seeded high enough to host a first-round game, taking away the chance for seniors Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther to play one last time at McKale Center. And with next year’s roster expected to be completely different thanks to a top-rated recruiting class, the opportunity to use the NIT as an experience-builder for returning players would be minimal.
Sure, Williams and fellow freshman Devonaire Doutrive could benefit from one more game, but would that be enough to warrant participating?
And with Arizona smack dab in the middle of the federal college basketball corruption scandal, there’s no doubt ESPN would devote nearly as much airtime during the game to that topic as to the on-court action. Win and the spotlight would only increase, especially with Miller reportedly being subpoenaed to testify in a trial that begins April 22, 18 days after the NIT final is held at Madison Square Garden in New York City.