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An Arizona fan’s rooting guide for the 2021 NCAA Tournament

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arizona-wildcats-ncaa-tournament-barcello-pastner-pasternack-grand-canyon-pac12-fan-guide-2021 Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

At this time of year, Arizona basketball fans are usually filling out brackets and plotting the team’s potential path to that elusive fifth Final Four.

With Arizona under a self-imposed ban from the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Wildcats faithful can turn to the next best thing: supporting teams who have direct (or less than direct) ties to the UA program.

From former Arizona assistants turned head coaches to UA transfers and one-time commits, the Wildcats’ imprint on March Madness is larger than you might expect.

Without further ado, here are some storylines Arizona fans should follow during the NCAA Tournament.

Josh Pastner has Georgia Tech in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010

Former Arizona player and assistant coach Josh Pastner has Georgia Tech in the Big Dance after the Yellow Jackets clinched their ticket by winning the ACC Tournament.

Pastner entered his fifth year as Georgia Tech’s coach on the hot seat. In the regular season, he dismantled blue bloods Kentucky and North Carolina, two schools he’d had experience beating in the 1997 NCAA Tournament as a member of Arizona’s national title team.

The Yellow Jackets began the ACC Tournament squarely on the bubble. After knocking off Miami in the quarterfinals, Georgia Tech’s semifinals matchup against Virginia was ruled a walk-over when a Cavaliers player tested positive for Covid-19.

Upon learning Georgia Tech had advanced to the final by way of default, Pastner motivated his team by comparing the situation to his playing days at Arizona.

“As I told our guys today, I was on the team that won the 1997 national championship. You know how many minutes I played? Zero. Nobody knows that. No one looks at the box score. They just know I was on the team that won the national title. That’s the same thing here.”

On Saturday the Yellow Jackets held off Florida State to win the ACC Tournament crown, leading to an emotional postgame interview between ESPN, Pastner and Georgia Tech point guard Jose Alvarado.

Pastner’s reward for getting Georgia Tech into the field for the first time since 2010: a No. 9 seed and a first-round matchup with No. 8 Loyola Chicago on Friday. Get past the Ramblers and the Yellowjackets would face top-seeded Illinois.

Alex Barcello and his hot shooting lead No. 6 seed BYU

Since transferring to BYU after two seasons at Arizona, Alex Barcello has emerged as the Cougars’ best all-around player. The senior point guard will look to take BYU on a magical NCAA Tournament run.

Barcello is averaging 15.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game for the Cougars. His shooting has taken off since leaving Arizona; as a sophomore in Tucson, he shot 39.3% from the field and 29.2% from deep. This year he’s connecting on over 52% of his field goals including an impressive 48.6% clip from behind the arc.

In a late February matchup against San Francisco, Barcello went 7 for 7 from deep on his way to 29 points. That’s the level of scoring BYU will need out of the Chandler native if the Cougars hope to make a surprising run.

Barcello and the Cougars earned a No. 6 seed and will open Saturday against the winner of a First Four matchup between UCLA and Michigan State. Barcello averaged 8.0 points and 3.0 assists in two games against UCLA, one with BYU and one with Arizona.

Joe Pasternack has UCSB primed to be a dangerous out in March

Joe Pasternack was a vital member of the Arizona coach staff from 2011-2017 before accepting the UC Santa Barbara job. In four seasons with the Gauchos, Pasternack has amassed a superb .727 winning percentage (88-33), and now he’s got UCSB playing on the biggest stage of them all.

The Gauchos finished first in the Big West this season and cruised through the conference tournament, beating UC Irvine 79-63 in the final.

Senior point guard JaQuori McLaughlin, a transfer from Oregon State, averages more than 16 points a game for the Gauchos, while junior Amadou Sow is one of the best forwards in the Big West.

Pasternack is sure to be a sought-after coach this offseason. He’s won 21 or more games in each of his four seasons with UCSB and was recently named Big West Coach of the Year.

Of course, there’s worse places for an emerging coach to build a resume so maybe he’ll stick around Santa Barbara for awhile longer. First, though, is a meeting with Creighton in a 5/12 matchup on Friday.

Former Arizona commit Jahvon Quinerly is Alabama’s sixth man

It seems like a lifetime ago that Jahvon Quinerly was committed to play for Arizona. The New Jersey native was expected to be the UA’s next great scoring guard, but he opened up his recruitment shortly after a 2017 FBI investigation suggested he received improper benefits from UA assistant Book Richardson.

Quinerly settled on Villanova but played sparingly in his lone season there before transferring to Alabama.

The sophomore guard has since thrived in a sixth-man role with the Crimson Tide. He’s averaging 12.6 points a game this season and scored 51 points over Alabama’s three SEC Tournament games, cumulating in a conference title over LSU.

Quinerly was named SEC Tournament MVP.

Alabama has won nine of its last 10 games and will be a trendy Final Four pick. Coached by Nate Oats—who was in charge of the Buffalo team that bounced Arizona from the tourney in 2018—the Crimson Tide have one of the top backcourts in the country with Quinerly playing aside John Petty Jr. and Jaden Shackelford.

Crimson Tide athletic director Greg Byrne, who was previously at Arizona, is spoiled with riches in Tuscaloosa. He gets to see his basketball program open as a No. 2 seed against No. 15 Iona (and Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino) on Saturday.

Shareef O’Neal won’t play but watch for LSU anyway

Shareef O’Neal is another former Arizona commit who eventually migrated to the SEC. O’Neal spent less than one season at UCLA before transferring to LSU, his dad Shaquille O’Neal’s alma mater.

O’Neal suffered a foot injury in February that will likely sideline him for the rest of the season. The sophomore forward had been averaging 2.8 points and 4.4 rebounds a game.

LSU should be a dark horse candidate to make a deep run in March. The Tigers have one of the best offenses in the field led by Cameron Thomas’ 22.8 points a game.

LSU head coach Will Wade nearly lost his job two years ago after released FBI wiretaps appeared to show Wade making an unsolicited offer for a recruit. Wade was suspended in March 2019 ahead of that year’s NCAA Tournament but was reinstated a month later.

The Tigers, who lost to Alabama in the SEC Tournament final on Sunday, is a No. 8 seed and opens Saturday against No. 9 St. Bonaventure with a potential clash against No. 1 seed Michigan waiting in the second round.

Hey, at least one Arizona school made the tournament

Grand Canyon University is carrying the pride of the state as the only Arizona school to make this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Bryce Drew in his first season as head coach of GCU led the Antelopes to a Western Athletic Conference Tournament title thus clinching their ticket to the Big Dance.

GCU’s strength is its front court, which is led by a pair of Europeans. Danish seven-footer Asbjorn Midtgaard averages a near double-double of 14 points and 9.9 rebounds a game, while Italian Alessandro Lever adds another 13.3 points and 5.4 boards.

Though Arizona fans would much rather seen their own school representing the Copper State, GCU will have to suffice this time around. That means becoming a temporary member of the “Havocs” when the Lobos, a No. 15 seed, takes on No. 2 Iowa on Friday.

Back the Pac

Oregon State’s Pac-12 Tournament title increased the conference’s Big Dance representation to five programs, not a bad haul given Arizona’s postseason ineligibility. The Beavers are in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time since 1990 (OSU last made it in 2016).

Arizona head coach Sean Miller is one of the Pac-12’s most ardent supporters. He regularly vouches for conference foes to receive at-large bids.

Here are the first-round matchups for the Pac-12 qualifiers:

  • No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 Georgetown (East Region, Saturday)
  • No. 6 USC vs. Drake/Wichita State winner (West Region, Saturday)
  • No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 10 VCU (West Region, Saturday)
  • No. 11 UCLA vs. No. 11 Michigan State (First Four, Thursday)
  • No. 12 Oregon State vs. No. 5 Tennessee (Midwest Region, Friday)

If even one of those teams can make the Sweet 16, it would be a significant accomplishment for a conference that didn’t produce a single top-15 ranked team all season.