NCAA tournament West region: No. 6 Arizona 81, No. 11 Belmont 64: Something to prove

Arizona senior Mark Lyons, trying to shoot around Belmont's Brandon Baker, finished with a game-high 23 points on 8-for-15 shooting.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

HONOLULU - For longtime Arizona Wildcats basketball fans, the words "first round" and "East Tennessee State" don't exactly go well together.

The Wildcats, who will face the Bucs in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic today, suffered their first of three first-round NCAA tournament losses over a four-year span to ETSU back in 1992.

And memories of the No. 14 seed's 87-80 upset of No. 3-seeded Arizona in Atlanta still linger a bit in Johnson City, Tenn., too.

"Our weightlifting coach told us about that game, that we actually beat them before," said freshman forward Lester Wilson, the Buccaneers' top scorer. "That kind of gives us a thought in the head."

Of course, for players on both teams, stories will have to do. Wilson wasn't even born when the upset happened and senior Jarvis Jones was a toddler.

But Jones still smiled knowingly when he was asked about it Friday before the Bucs practiced at Stan Sheriff Center.

"I was only 2 years old, but I heard about it," Jones said. "That was a pretty good team."

East Tennessee State was a good team then. The Bucs, who had played respectably in a Preseason NIT loss at Arizona the previous season, came out with confidence, speed and shooting in a combination that the Wildcats had not previously seen that season.

They made 13 of 25 three-pointers.

"No matter what we tried to do to counteract their quickness, they took advantage of it," UA coach Lute Olson said after that game. "The difference was their ability to shoot threes, and their quickness created problems for us."

But, of course, that was over two decades ago. The coaches are different, the era is different and, well, East Tennessee State is not as good as it was then.

Not nearly. In fact, the Buccaneers (2-7) might be the weakest team the No. 4-ranked Wildcats (9-0) face this season, with a 1-7 record against Division I competition and a 317 Sagarin rating out of 347 Division I teams.

It wasn't supposed to be this rough. But not only did ETSU lose three starters from a 17-win team last season but it also lost starting guards Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose, who were dismissed from the team last month, and forward Lukas Poderis, out for the season with a foot injury.

Also, ETSU point guard Petey McClain is expected to miss the Diamond Head Classic with an ankle injury.

"Basically, anything and everything that you would probably hope not to happen to a team," Wilson said, "happened to our team this year."

And, on top of it all, the Buccaneers have played a brutal schedule that has included Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Ole Miss.

So when ETSU coach Murry Bartow was asked how the Bucs were doing so far this season, his answers were predictable.

"Struggling," he said. "Struggling. Struggling."

Bartow, the son of former UCLA and UAB coach Gene Bartow, has been a head coach for 16 seasons now. And this is unique even to him.

"We all have injuries and bumps and bruises, but I've never had anything like this," he said. "At the mid-major level, when you take three or four starters out, you've got real problems and that's kind of where we've been. I've got a good group of guys and they work hard and we defend pretty hard, but we struggle to put the ball in the basket."

So if the Bucs continue with that pattern, tonight's game might not be much of a challenge for Arizona. But tonight isn't just about one game for the Wildcats: A win means they will face the winner of tonight's late matchup between hometown favorites Hawaii and Miami, a fast-rising ACC team.

That's the big picture that UA coach Sean Miller said he was looking at Friday, after he took the Wildcats through a workout at a practice facility on the University of Hawaii campus.

Miller said the Wildcats practiced well after taking Thursday off to travel to Honolulu, and were fully aware that this trip, unlike the one they took to the Bahamas in August, has much more serious repercussions.

"The only similarities between the two trips are that both are tropical locations and we are here for more than a couple of days," Miller said. "From that perspective, it's the same. But everything we do here counts and nobody knows that better than our guys."

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• What: No. 4 UA vs. East Tennessee St. in the Diamond Head Classic

• Where: Honolulu

• When: 8:30 p.m.