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NCAA Tournament: Arizona guards key to deep run, not reason one won’t happen

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-ncaa-tournament-guards-kerr-kriisa-courtney-ramey-kylan-boswell Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

So there it is.

An Arizona team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2022, made it to the Sweet 16 and then lost three starters to the NBA, followed it up by earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2023.

As far as drops go, that technically is one.

Nevertheless, the Wildcats head into the Dance once again as the Pac-12 Tournament champions and playing some pretty good basketball. They many not be a popular Final Four pick, at least not like they were last year, but they’ll still likely be expected to win at least a couple of games.

But as Arizona prepares for a matchup with the Princeton Tigers in a South Region that is headlined by top overall seed Alabama, the question is, as is the case every year around this time, just how far can the team go? Is this the squad that will get the Cats back to the Final Four, where it hasn’t been since 2001?

If last year’s team couldn’t get it done, why could this year’s — which is not quite as talented — end the drought?

One reason, two words: guard play.

More specifically, point and combo-guard play.

While Arizona’s advantage over most opponents is in its bigs, Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo, what may very well get them over the top is the play of Kerr Kriisa, Courtney Ramey and Kylan Boswell.

In that trio Arizona has ball-handling, shooting, some pretty good defense and the willingness to take big shots. We saw it throughout the season and especially in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game, where Kriisa made a pair of big threes late and Ramey made what ended up being the game-winner. Neither had a great game, but when the team needed them most they came through.

Boswell, meanwhile (did you know he’s 17?) continued his steady rise from young freshman to key player, giving Arizona yet another option in the case of injury, foul trouble or matchup issues. He has hit big shots throughout the season and proven to be a steady defender, with his size, quickness and strength.

Compare this to last year when the Wildcats rolled into the tournament with a hobbled Kriisa and Justin Kier at the point and, yeah, this is a much better situation at the position many feel is the most important this time of year.

None of this is to say Arizona’s lead guards are perfect, because they are quite flawed. Kriisa’s shot is inconsistent and his defense is at best adequate, while Ramey has the occasional game where the only thing that rivals his number of turnovers is that of his missed shots.

And for as great as Boswell has been, he is still experiencing things for the first time and thus may be prone to some freshman mistakes.

But even with all that, the guards Arizona is entering the tournament with are more than good enough to lead the team on a deep run, especially in the context of the kind of offense Arizona runs.

Remember, while the point guard is of course important this isn’t the same as the Sean Miller days when that player would not only set up of the offense, but have it largely run through his drives and decisions. Instead, Lloyd’s attack sees the ball get moved around and touched by most players, and often is run through the post via Tubelis or Ballo (and sometimes both).

It’s why a player like Kriisa, warts and all, is an effective player and someone who the team is better for when he’s healthy and on the floor. Say what you will about him, there’s a reason why he is averaging double digits in points while leading the conference in assists per game. He’s also a pretty good free throw shooter and the emotional leader of the team.

It’s why Ramey came to Arizona, to have the freedom to be the kind of scorer he wasn’t in Texas, where he was known as a quality defender. Nobody is looking at him to score 15+ points a game, but he’s certainly capable and could very well get hot and carry the ‘Cats to victory. And if the team needs to make one shot, would you want the ball in his hands?

It’s also why most everyone is comfortable with a very young true freshman with all of zero starts and zero NCAA Tournament minutes handling the ball and taking shots in big games.

So while Arizona doesn’t have the best guards in the country, the truth is they don’t need to. The Cats are at their best when feeding the post, just as they did for the bulk of their Pac-12 Tournament run. But while the bigs provide Arizona with its largest advantage, and the wings are vital to the team’s success, it is the guards who can and just might get the team over the hump.