Already armed with over five months of off-court adversity that could fuel their NCAA Tournament run this month, the Arizona Wildcats received a few on the court hurdles Sunday courtesy of the selection committee.
The Wildcats were given the last No. 4 seed available and, instead of playing near home at San Diego as expected, they were shipped to Boise, Idaho — where they will face No. 13 Buffalo on Thursday and possibly No. 5 seed Kentucky on Saturday should they win their first game.
Then, if Arizona manages to get out of Boise alive next weekend, the Wildcats will have to travel to Atlanta and possibly face No. 1 overall seed Virginia in the Sweet 16.
It’s a marked contrast from a year ago, when the Wildcats were given the best possible path to the Final Four in their home state, going through Salt Lake City and San Jose. However, they lost to 11th-seeded Xavier in the Sweet 16 and never made it to Phoenix.
But the Wildcats were a No. 2 seed last season and judged as only the No. 16th overall seed this time, despite winning the Pac-12 regular-season title by two games, winning the Pac-12 Tournament on Saturday and recording a 5-3 record in top-tier Quadrant 1 games.
“Arizona was the fourth No. 4 seed, so they had to go where the slot was left,” said Creighton AD Bruce Rasmussen, the chair of this year’s NCAA Tournament selection committee. “That’s why they ended up where they ended up.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller and UA players were not available for comment Sunday – though Miller has a media press conference scheduled for Monday – but UA players said after their 75-61 win over USC on Saturday that they hoped their roster issues may have been taken into consideration.
Rawle Alkins missed a total of 12 games with foot issues, including all three games UA lost in the Battle 4 Atlantis, while fellow starter Allonzo Trier missed a Feb. 24 loss at Oregon with a PED suspension he appealed out of five days later. UA coach Sean Miller also sat out the Oregon game a day after ESPN reported he allegedly discussed paying a recruit.
“I see a lot of media talk about (it helping) teams that lost because some players weren’t there, they weren’t playing at their best, so hopefully they put us in that conversation,” Alkins said after UA beat USC 75-61 Saturday to win the Pac-12 Tournament title. “We lost a couple of games because me and Allonzo were out. Hopefully they talk about that kind of stuff but if not we still feel confident.”
Well … they apparently didn’t talk much about it.
When the Star asked Rasmussen on a teleconference call if the committee considered UA’s absences this season, he said:
“We discuss player availability concerning every team and unfortunately this year there were a lot of players for a lot of teams who were not available,” Rasmussen said. “So we take the resume as it appears.”
The Wildcats were hardly alone among their Pac-12 rivals in receiving a stiff message Sunday from the committee. USC was kept out of the tournament despite going 23-11 and finishing second in the Pac-12, while ASU and UCLA were assigned two of the final four spots in the at-large field, and thus were assigned to play extra “First Four” games just to reach the first round.
The tough selection news also affected several programs implicated in the current federal investigation into college basketball, including UA, USC, Louisville and Auburn.
Auburn was shipped to San Diego as a No. 4 seed while Gonzaga, seeded just ahead of Arizona overall at No. 15, received the West’s No. 4 seed — and will get to also open in Boise, which is within a day’s drive from the Zags’ campus in Spokane.
But Rasmussen emphatically denied that the federal complaint had any impact on the selections.
“It had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Rasmussen said. “There was no discussion at all in the committee about that. That’s outside of our purview.”
Rasmussen said USC didn’t get in because it beat only two teams in the NCAA Tournament field, automatic qualifiers New Mexico State and Cal State Fullerton.
“Southern Cal had a lot of discussion,” Rasmussen said. “They had a lot of intense discussion. But we look at how teams did against tournament-caliber teams, either teams in the tournament or teams we feel are tournament-caliber teams.”
USC was given a No. 1 seed in the NIT and will host UNC Asheville on Tuesday.
That’s the same day Arizona will fly to Boise, its first step toward trying to somehow reach the Final Four in San Antonio while criss-crossing the country and possibly facing several of the best teams in the field.