It’s every college basketball player’s dream to experience the thrill of March Madness, so you can imagine how Arizona players felt Tuesday when they learned they were banned from the postseason.
“It hurt,” said sophomore forward Jordan Brown. “We prepared well throughout the entire preseason and we were competing to hopefully get to that point. But it’s not going to stop us.”
Because if Thursday’s game at Washington was any indication of how it will change them, the answer is that it won’t.
Just two days after the program self-imposed the ban, the Wildcats dominated the glass, played suffocating defense and used a balanced offense to rout the Washington Huskies 80-53 in Seattle.
“We still got a chip on our shoulder, and we’re still competing every day,” said Brown, who led Arizona with 12 points and seven rebounds. “If anything it gives us even more of a job to play hard. We got a lot of hungry guys and we look forward to competing, just to show them what type of team we have and what kind of guys we got.”
Head coach Sean Miller was confident his team would respond the way that it did, but admitted he wasn’t sure because “until you go through it, you never really know.”
“We have a great group of guys,” he said. “They love the game, number one. They respect Arizona, they respect our program’s history. That’s something that we talk a lot about. They know that they’re representing not only the past but also in some ways a bridge towards a bright future.
“I think if there’s ever a test of a young person’s character, it’s when they get hit with some tough news and now they have a choice of how they respond. And I think you saw by today’s performance, and I saw it immediately by our practices, we’ve got a good group of leadership. We have a great group of kids, supported by some families that really trust us as coaches and our program and it’s up to us now to really put together the most exciting and best nine weeks that we can.”
While the Wildcats are barred from the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments, they still see plenty to play for.
They have a legitimate chance to win a conference championship and can use their remaining games to build team chemistry for next season when they could return their entire rotation.
From an individual perspective, the players can still win all-conference honors, develop their games, and put themselves on the radar of pro scouts.
They also get to be around each other and travel around the country, which Miller said is refreshing because they basically live in isolation when they’re in Tucson due to COVID-19.
“So those types of things haven’t changed and our approach hasn’t either, but we’re gonna enjoy our time together,” Miller said. “You know, if there’s ever a team that I’ve been around that is playing for each other, it’s this group right here.”
Miller has talked all season about how he enjoys coaching this team because they play hard and with togetherness. So it was fitting that in their first game since the postseason ban, they maintained a big lead all game and saw all nine rotation players make at least one field goal.
“Obviously our team is disappointed,” Miller said. “The NCAA tournament and playing for a championship is why you come to Arizona. It’s all we talk about and think about as a player. The two words March Madness are very important. So when that’s not a possibility it’s certainly disheartening.
“However, we also have a really good group and practice feels the same. Today’s game feels the same. We have a chance to play 17 more Pac-12 games and compete for the best record that we possibly can have, and we want to be playing our best so that as we enter the month of March there was no doubt that we were a tournament team. And then we grow and we build from there.”
Still, Miller reiterated that he is not trying to downplay the seriousness of the postseason ban because “it’s significant.” What might hurt most is that players who had nothing to do with the NCAA investigation are being punished for the program’s past.
All they can do now is forge a better future.
“I support what was done,” Miller said of the self-imposed ban, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy thing.”