At the beginning of the season, Arizona had one goal: return to the NCAA tournament.
“You try not to go through a period where you don’t make the NCAA tournament,” coach Dave Rubio said before the season started. “Every single year your goal is to make it, and every year you should make it.”
After a year when they posted a historic turnaround, the Wildcats reached that goal with Sunday evening’s announcement that they are on their way to face the SEC’s Missouri Tigers (23-7, 13-5) in this year’s tournament.
Arizona will travel to Lincoln, Nebraska for the first weekend. Their opening match will get under way at 3:30 p.m. MST on Friday, Nov. 30.
If the Wildcats win their opening match, they will advance to play either the Big Ten’s Nebraska Cornhuskers (24-6, 15-5) or the Colonial Athletic Association’s Hofstra Pride (25-7, 13-3) on Sunday at 6 p.m. MST. Host school Nebraska is the No. 7 seed and the defending national champion.
A quick look at how Missouri and Arizona stack up
The Tigers came into the week with an official RPI of 33. They ended it with an unoffical RPI of 31. While their win-loss record pushed them slightly higher in the RPI than the Wildcats, a closer look at that record reveals some weaknesses.
Missour started their year with a very weak non-conference slate. That was a criticism Arizona also faced for much of the season. Both deserved the questions.
The Tigers’ pre-season opponents entered the week with an average RPI of 140. The highest-ranked was No. 49 Princeton and the lowest was Delaware State (No. 334 out of 336 Division I teams). Two were outside the top 250.
For Arizona’s pre-season opponents, the average RPI entering the final week of play was a whopping 183. Their highest-ranked opponent prior to conference play was No. 60 New Mexico State. The lowest was No. 273 Montana, one of two Arizona opponents outside the top 250.
Unlike the Wildcats, though, the Tigers couldn’t make up for that with a strong slate of conference opponents. Of the 13 teams in the SEC, seven entered the week outside the RPI top 75. Four of those were outside the top 100, with Mississippi bringing up the rear at No. 239.
For Arizona, there was only three foes outside the top 75 once conference play started. Only one of those—No. 162 Oregon State—was outside the top 100.
Against teams inside the top 50, Arizona had the decided advantage on the court. The Wildcats went 6-9 against those teams. The Tigers went 3-5.
The Wildcats also have the advantage against other NCAA tournament teams. Arizona faced eight opponents who made it into the field, including automatic qualifier New Mexico State. The Wildcats went 6-9 against those teams. Missouri faced only four teams in the field, going 2-3.
Arizona’s opportunity to regularly face off against high-quality opponents late in the season would seem to be an advantage. The Wildcats know what it takes to beat teams like USC, Oregon and Washington State, all of whom earned national seeds. They even showed that they could compete with the No. 1 seed when they lost to Stanford in four close sets.
In the end, though, it will come down to match-ups, scouting and execution on the day of the match. Check in throughout the week for more discussion of the Wildcats and their match-up with the Missouri Tigers.
The rest of the Pac-12
The conference put eight teams into the tournament, more than any other league. Four of those teams will be hosting at least the first two rounds.
Stanford (28-1, 20-0), who has had the No. 1 RPI all season, is the top seed in this year’s championship. They will play in Palo Alto until the national semifinals, as long as they continue to win. With their nation-leading 32-game home winning streak, that’s highly likely.
USC (No. 11), Oregon (No. 15) and Washington State (No. 16) also received national seeds. They will host for at least the first weekend.
Washington, Colorado and Utah join Arizona as the unseeded teams from the conference.
UCLA entered the week ranked No. 25 in the AVCA coaches poll and No. 35 in the RPI, giving the conference a chance to get nine teams into the tournament. However, after losing both matches this week, they fell below .500 for the season. The Bruins were eliminated despite entering the week with a better RPI than conference foes Utah, Arizona and Colorado.
All NCAA Tournament matches will be aired or streamed on the ESPN family of networks.