While Arizona guard Kadeem Allen, left, is surrounded by reporters, UA guards Jacob Hazzard, right, and Trey Mason use their cellphones to keep amused before the team goes out for its open practice.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In the beginning, when senior forward Ryan Anderson splashed the words #JustUs across his Twitter profile, that’s what the Arizona Wildcats thought they were this season.
Just them. All the sure-fire lottery picks of recent seasons were gone, leaving a mix of transfers, seniors, sophomores and freshmen that would ultimately rely on effort and chemistry almost as much as talent.
That worked out pretty well. Arizona didn’t win the Pac-12 as it was narrowly expected to, but the Wildcats bring a 25-8 record and No. 6 seed into the NCAA Tournament opener Thursday against Wichita State, with the knowledge that they nearly defeated eventual No. 1-NCAA Tournament seed Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament last week.
Now, maybe fittingly, Arizona is making its final turn of the season and it’s just them, in what just might be best kind of place they could be.
Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence is the farthest venue the Wildcats will have ever played an NCAA Tournament game in, and by far the farthest the Wildcats have traveled this season.
The city is steeped in history, the trees are still bare, and there’s an early spring chill in the air that might pass for a dreary winter’s day in Tucson. There weren’t even any UA fans openly cheering for the Wildcats on Wednesday, as there usually are during open workouts the day before NCAA Tournament games.
In other words, it’s hardly SoCal. That’s where well-accomplished Wildcat teams of the past three seasons all ended their seasons, the past two arguably in a premature sense.
There, the Wildcats were near many of their hometowns. Friends and families came out of the woodwork, adding pressure and distraction for some of them.
“There’s only a certain number of tickets, and you don’t know who to give them to,” guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, one of eight Southern Californians on UA’s roster. “You’re always torn. Either that, or you want to only give them to people who are really there for you in the long run.”
This time, other than New Hampshire native Kaleb Tarczewski and New York-bred assistant coach Book Richardson, there are no local ties to worry about.
Richardson rolls his eyes at how many people he has coming out to Dunkin’ Donuts Center, but he won’t have to play the game. And while Tarczewski will, he’s long been respected for his maturity level, suggesting he can handle it.
He’s just plain old excited, having never played a single college game closer than New York to his hometown of Claremont, N.H.
While Tarczewski considers himself pretty much a Tucsonan at this point, living in town nearly year-round, he still was unmistakably struck by it all upon arriving in Rhode Island on Tuesday night.
It felt like home.
“It does a little bit,” Tarczewski said. “It’s been a couple years since I’ve been there but there’s no place like home and I feel like New England is sort of my home.”
Tarczewski played high school ball at St. Mark’s, about 45 minutes away in Massachusetts. He played road games against schools in Rhode Island, and one of his biggest basketball mentors still lives nearby.
It’s a home game for him, maybe. And a road game, York says, for the Wildcats.
“We are sort of on our own,” York said. “Coach (Sean) Miller made the statement that he’d rather have it that way. It’s always felt like a home game and why not be on an away game, all the way on the East Coast and understand that we’ve got to play our hearts out, and understand that even when you’re doing well, you’re not going to hear the roar of the crowd.
“So it’s keep going and play an almost perfect game against the Shockers.”
There’s historical evidence suggesting that kind of mentality works for the Wildcats. While it can be misleading to compare their success out of Western sites to their performances in the East — because simply being placed in the West means they’ve had a better season — the UA is 5-4 since 2006 in NCAA Tournament games played east of the Rocky Mountains.
Before that, they raced to the 2001 Final Four through the Midwest Region, stopping in Kansas City, San Antonio and Minneapolis and, famously, they won the 1997 national championship through the Southeast — winning a pair of games each in Memphis, Birmingham and Indianapolis.
In SoCal? Well, the Wildcats are 5-6 since 1998, with four of the most painful losses in UA history: Utah’s 1998 dismantling of the defending national champs, Kansas’ three-point win over the top-seeded Jason Gardner-Luke Walton-led team of 2003 and, of course, those two Elite Eight losses to Wisconsin in the past two years.
All in Southern California.
Maybe this could be different.
“It’s good for us,” guard Allonzo Trier said. “It’s good for us to get out east and get out of our comfort zone a little bit. It’ll allow us to come together.”
Total tickets York needed for Thursday’s game: One.
“My mom is going to come out,” York said. “That’s all I got.”
It’s just them.