SAN DIEGO—The Arizona Wildcats begin their first NCAA Tournament since 2018 on Friday afternoon when face Wright State in the first round. They haven’t won an NCAA game since the second round in 2017, the longest stretch without a tourney victory since going 12 years between wins from 1976-88.
That squad reached the program’s first Final Four, so if history repeats Arizona could be in line for its first trip to the national semifinals since losing to Duke in the 2001 NCAA title game.
What will it take for Arizona (31-3) to make such a deep run?
“We don’t have to do anything different than we’ve done this year,” coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Whether it was in the tournament in Las Vegas, around Thanksgiving, or the Pac-12 Tournament. You go in, you treat it exactly the same. We’ve learned from each one of those games, and our guys have been great in the moment. I don’t anticipate anything different. I don’t think we have to do anything different.
“Maybe that’s the key, just to go out—and I tell them every day—go out, most aggressive team wins. Let it rip.”
Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats, the top seed in the South Region, face No. 16 Wright State (22-13) at Viejas Arena:
How much (if at all) will Kerr play?
Lloyd said it will be a gametime decision if Kerr Kriisa will play after missing the last two games of the Pac-12 tourney with a sprained right ankle. He participated in Arizona’s open practice on Thursday, focusing on perimeter shots so he could test out his landing, coming down mostly on the ball of his right foot rather than the heel.
Ankle's looking pretty good for Kerr Kriisa pic.twitter.com/mbF8Qz7NW2— Brian Pedersen (@realBJP) March 17, 2022
“He’s made great progress,” Lloyd said. “ Our goal was to push it, see how close we could get him to playing. And I think he’s close. We’ll see tomorrow what it looks like, and it could be a deal where he may play but he may not start. And we’ll just take it from there and see where he’s at.”
Justin Kier has started the last two games, going for 13 points in the Pac-12 semifinals before running into foul trouble in the final against UCLA. That game saw Dalen Terry play a lot more point, finishing with career highs in points (15) and assists (7).
A tired, but unafraid opponent
Wright State got to San Diego after 12:30 a.m. local time Thursday, getting settled into its hotel in bed around 2 a.m. That’s 5 a.m. for the Raiders, who had flown in from Dayton, Ohio—a few miles from WSU’s campus in Fairborn—after beating Bryant 93-82 in the First Four.
“We’re probably a little tired from the trip,” coach Scott Nagy deadpanned. “But we’d rather be tired than not be in it.”
Added leading scorer Tanner Holden: “We’re just trying to recover as best we can and get ready to play tomorrow.”
That won’t mean the Raiders will play scared, though, considering how often this team has won games in which it has trailed big in the second half. They were down 16 to Northern Kentucky with 11:41 left in the Horizon League championship game, only to win by one, after being down 14 six minutes into the second half of their quarterfinal win over Oakland.
There’s also the massive amount of adversity the team has faced this season, mostly off the court. Nagy lost his father early in the season, while several players had close family members pass away.
“This team’s been through a lot … and I feel that’s just brought us closer together,” Holden said. “If we don’t go through those things off the court that brought us closer together and the adversity that we faced, and slowly, slowly fight through it, I feel like it’s definitely helped us on the court because we’re a lot closer. We know what we all want. I feel like that definitely helps us. We’re going to play a great team tomorrow and I feel like we’re very prepared mentally, emotionally and physically. So it will definitely be a great matchup for us.”
Also worth noting: Wright State has already played (and won) a game, while Arizona has been waiting. The Wildcats faced a similar situation to start the Pac-12 tourney and struggled for much of the game to beat a Stanford team that had some momentum.
“So many people think going to the tournament is the experience, and I don’t want that to be the experience for our players,” Nagy said. “I want it to be winning basketball games. And even though it was a 16 versus a 16 last night, being able to win a game in the NCAA Tournament was one of the greatest thrills of my life. I know it will be a lifetime memory for them. But we want to keep going. And we know every team you play in this tournament is going to be good. Doesn’t matter who it is.”
Another hot scorer?
Arizona has been on a run of facing opponents with a player who is either already hot or catches fire when he faces the Wildcats. Colorado’s Jabari Walker hit five first-half 3-pointers in the Pac-12 semifinals, this after Stanford’s Spencer Jones followed up a 25-point performance against ASU in the first round by dropping a career-high 28 against the UA in the quarters.
“I’ll tell you what, if you want to get hot, play against Arizona,” Lloyd said after the Colorado game.
Enter Holden, the 6-foot-6 Wright State guard who had 37 points and 11 rebounds against Bryant. The junior was 11 of 15 from the field and 14 of 15 from the line.
For the season, Holden averages 20.3 points per game and shoots 52 percent.
Lloyd said Arizona will play “normal” to start, not overly focusing on Holden or No. 2 scorer Grant Basile, who averages 18.4 points per game, but if adjustments need to be made as the game goes on they will.
“They have other good players, too,” Lloyd said. “And in a single-elimination game, I think you want to come and play solid and straight up and do your best to guard everybody well. As the game plays out maybe you’ll have to make an adjustment and tilt your defense more to one guy or another.
“But Holden is a heck of a player. He’s a natural scorer. He scores a lot of points scoring 2s and 1s which is really impressive.”
Arizona has allowed 13 players (in 11 different games) to score 20 or more against it this season, with only the 24 by Tennessee’s John Fulkerson coming in a loss. The most the UA has given up to an opposing player in the NCAA tourney is 35, by Southern Illinois’ Mike Glenn in 1977.
A mismatch on paper
Wright State has the No. 255 defensive efficiency in the country, per KenPom.com, worse than all but six of Arizona’s opponents. The Raiders allow opponents to shoot almost 45 percent from the field and are in the bottom third nationally in defensive rebounding.
Their only games against NCAA tourney teams, not counting their matchup with Bryant in the First Four, saw them allow 52.2 percent shooting in a 44-point loss at Purdue and get outrebounded by 10 in an 18-point home loss to Akron.
WSU is just outside the top 100 in offensive efficiency, though, and gets a higher percentage of its points from 2-point range than Arizona. It hasn’t faced a defense as strong as Arizona’s, though, scoring 52 points after No. 96 Purdue while every other opponent ranked 164th or worse on defense.
No experience, no problem
Only Oumar Ballo has played in an NCAA Tournament game among Arizona’s rotation guys, logging a combined nine minutes of garbage time in three of Gonzaga’s six games on the way to the 2021 final. Lloyd said this is by far the youngest team he’s ever been involved with in the tourney, both in terms of overall experience and the March Madness variety.
Maybe that’s a blessing. At least that’s what Lloyd said Steve Kerr told him recently.
“He was telling me how cool it is to go through it the first time,” Lloyd said. “For him when they made that run to the NBA Finals the first year, he just told me, there’s a beautiful innocence about it because you haven’t been institutionalized yet. So maybe that goes for me and the team, where we’ve got kind of an ignorance-is-bliss type of approach and we’ll go out, be in attack mode because that’s the way we’ve played all year.”