A few potholes line Arizona’s road to New York City this month.
Wins over Fairleigh Dickinson tonight and either Rhode Island or Metro State on Tuesday at McKale Center will send the Wildcats to the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals at Madison Square Garden, but...
— The Wildcats could be bored, opening tonight with an FDU team that finished with a 300 RPI last season and was even worse than that in three of the previous four seasons.
— They (or their fans) could be tired, facing what are likely two straight 9 p.m. games, since tonight’s two winners will play the late game Tuesday.
— They also could be hungover, still bloated with overconfidence after their convincing 69-60 win at San Diego State on Thursday.
But there’s an easy cure to all that. They just have to flip open the history books.
The last time the Wildcats were in the NIT Season Tip-Off, in 2008-09, they had a pair of future NBA players, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, plus a veteran point guard in Nic Wise.
Not only were there expectations of winning two games at McKale Center to reach the semifinals and finals in New York, but the Wildcats didn’t even have McKale available for consolation games in case they lost.
They beat Florida Atlantic by 13 in the opener but headed into the final seconds of their second game in a 71-71 tie with Alabama-Birmingham.
With 2.2 seconds left, UAB’s Paul Delaney III tried to race the ball out of his backcourt in time for a last-second heave …. but he didn’t even need to cross the midcourt line nor begin to shoot when UA’s Jamelle Horne fouled him.
In a time-and-score situation that dictated the defense should not foul, Delaney instead went to the free-throw line to make 1 of 2 free throws.
The Blazers went to New York. The Wildcats, because of McKale schedule conflicts, were shipped to a near-empty arena in Athens, Ga., for some consolation games.
“Instead of just letting him go, he made a poor decision and he’s broken up about it,” then-UA interim coach Russ Pennell said of Horne. “It was not a heads-up play … He was afraid the guy was going to get a layup.”
That wasn’t the only issue. Then-freshman Kyle Fogg had earlier inadvertently fouled UAB after he scored to tie the game at 71.
“It obviously shows our immaturity on the floor, especially in crunch time,” Horne said then.
Of course, things are much, much different now. Then, the Wildcats were just weeks removed from Lute Olson’s retirement, with youngsters and veterans alike still scrambling to find themselves under Pennell and associate head coach Mike Dunlap.
Now, the Wildcats have a roster littered with future NBA players, a veteran true point guard in T.J. McConnell and a precocious freshmen class led by forward Aaron Gordon.
They are rated the No. 6 team in the country, and have a coach in Sean Miller who, with a win tonight, will become the fifth coach in UA history to record 100 wins after just four-plus years.
So there’s all that.
And this: Focus.
Here’s what junior Nick Johnson said moments after the Wildcats’ win in San Diego on Thursday:
“I’m worried about that game on Monday,” Johnson said. “We’ve gotta win that and our second. We’ve got to get back and prepare.”
They did. Miller was not available for comment over the weekend but assistant coach Damon Stoudamire said Miller has made putting the SDSU game behind them a point of emphasis during weekend practices.
“We’ve talked about it,” Stoudamire said. “If we are going to be the team we want to be, then we can’t be content with a big win on the road. We’ve gotta turn it around and get ready for this.”