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Lucky Streak: Wildcats will need fortune to achieve NCAA tournament fame

2013-03-17T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:09:26Z Lucky Streak: Wildcats will need fortune to achieve NCAA tournament famePatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

LAS VEGAS - There is no better day, and no more apt location, to discuss what puts the madness in March.

"Any lucky shot can happen," senior guard Mark Lyons said Friday, sitting on a folding chair in the whisper-quiet Arizona Wildcats locker room at MGM Grand Garden Arena. "A team can play hard and blow people out. I've seen blowouts in the tournament, too.

"So it's just the luck of the Irish, I guess."

At 3 p.m. today, on St. Patrick's Day, the Wildcats will find out where their NCAA tournament journey will begin.

The UA will be assigned a seed and an opponent, a series of factors that will alter its odds to march through the madness.

But the Wildcats and their coach know, perhaps more than most, that fortune will play some role in how far they go.

"You can say that," senior forward Solomon Hill said. "I think that's why they call it March Madness. You never know what can happen. You have to be ready for it."

Sean Miller has participated in 14 NCAA tournament games as a head coach, the first 10 at Xavier, and four, in 2011, with the Wildcats. Eight times, the score was within one basket in the final minute of regulation.

In the 2011 Elite Eight, both Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne missed three-point attempts with less than seven seconds left in a two-point loss to eventual national champion Connecticut.

In the first round of that tournament, Williams blocked Wesley Witherspoon's shot with two seconds left to help UA beat Memphis by two. Two days later, Williams made a three-point play with nine seconds left to beat Texas by one.

The UA had possession only because it forced the Longhorns to commit a five-second violation while trying to pass the ball in.

Was some of it luck? Sure, said Hill, who was a sophomore then.

But, as Ben Franklin said, diligence is the mother of good fortune.

"If we didn't have the hustle and the attitude to really want to win that game, then that and-one wouldn't have went in," Hill said. "We wouldn't have the chance to really be able to pressure the team and to get a five-second count.

"You have to be able to go out there and not really look at the score and play hard until the final buzzer, because you never know what can happen.

"But it's about putting your team in that situation."

Miller has faced four No. 1 seeds in the Big Dance, beating one - Duke, in the UA's 2011 Sweet 16 blowout. Against top-seeded Pitt in 2009, his Musketeers led with under a minute left but lost by five.

Two years earlier, Miller watched in agony as Ohio State's Ron Lewis drained a 25-foot three-pointer with 6 seconds left to force overtime. The top-seeded Buckeyes ran away in the extra frame to win 78-71.

"One of the hardest losses I ever had," Miller said.

The Buckeyes would advance to the national title game.

"It could have very easily ended right there in Round 2," he said this week. "That parity and the competitiveness and guys playing really well in a single night, that's what makes the NCAA tournament, and March, so special."

Ken Pomeroy, the sport's premier statistical analyst, has tried to quantify luck. At KenPom.com, "Luck" stands alongside a team's record, offense, defense, tempo speed and strength of schedule.

"It measures your performance in close games," he said. "It feeds from close games as pretty random or unpredictable. "If you win a lot of close games, you're viewed as lucky. If you lose them, you're viewed as unlucky."

The Wildcats are No. 168 of 347 teams in "Luck" - almost exactly in the middle - this year.

The axiom that winning close games is a skill might be overstated. Miller pointed to the Michigan-Indiana game one week ago, when the Wolverines' Jordan Morgan tipped a shot toward the basket that rolled over half the rim and fell out in the final seconds.

The Hoosiers won by one to clinch their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years.

"We're talking about an inch right there," Miller said. "It's hard to say 'skill' on that shot."

UCLA point guard Larry Drew II, who played in the Big Dance for North Carolina before transferring, pointed to the finish of his team's win Friday against the Wildcats in the Pac-12 semifinals.

Bruins guard Kyle Anderson was perfectly positioned when an offensive rebound landed in his arms for the game-winning putback with 22 seconds to play.

"There's definitely some luck in the game of basketball," Drew said.

The better team is more likely to win an NCAA tournament game than one in the regular season, Pomeroy said, given that both teams are playing for their season.

"It's not as lucky, but there's still a ton of luck that goes into it," he said. "Most years, when you look at the national champion, there are games when they needed some breaks at the end.

"For the most part, you can find cases when good fortune helps a team to the title."

The exception was last year's champion, Kentucky, which won every tournament game by at least eight points.

In 2011, though, Connecticut beat the UA by two in the Elite Eight and Kentucky by one in the semifinal. The year before, Duke won the title against Butler by two points, when the Bulldogs' halfcourt heave at the buzzer rimmed out.

The Wildcats hope to be on that list by the end of the craziest three weeks in sports.

They'll need to play well - but, as history shows, they'll need a little luck.

"This is March Madness," Hill said. "Everybody's going to give you their best shot, because it's their last shot."

MORE INSIDE: Conference tourney coverage Pages B6-7 • Who's already in NCAAs Page B8 • Fill out our bracket Page B8

Today

• What: Selection Sunday

• When: 3 p.m.

• TV: Channel 13

Close games

Eight of the 14 NCAA tournament games Sean Miller has coached have been within one possession in the final minute of regulation.

Here's a look at how the eight, which include the Arizona Wildcats' most memorable games from 2011, went down:

Year Round Score

2006 First Gonzaga 79, Xavier 75

• What happened: Miller's Musketeers trailed by just one with 58 seconds left, but were outscored 5-2 the rest of the way.

2007 First Xavier 79, BYU 77

• What happened: The game featured five lead changes in the last five minutes before Xavier's Josh Duncan made a layup with 33 seconds left to put Xavier up for good.

2007 Second Ohio State 78, Xavier 71, OT

• What happened: The top-seeded Buckeyes got a miracle three-pointer from Ron Lewis to tie the game with six seconds left, and won in overtime.

2008 Sweet 16 Xavier 79, West Virginia 75, OT

• What happened: The Mountaineers' Joe Alexander tied the game with 14.2 seconds left. In overtime, Xavier's B.J. Raymond hit two three-pointers in the final 1:22 to clinch.

2009 Sweet 16 Pitt 60, Xavier 55

• What happened: Xavier led by two in the final minute, but top-seeded Pitt's Levance Fields made a three to reclaim the lead with 56 seconds left.

2011 First Arizona 77, Memphis 75

• What happened: Derrick Williams swatted Wesley Witherspoon's shot attempt in the final seconds to seal the win.

2011 Second Arizona 70, Texas 69

• What happened: Williams converted a three-point play with nine seconds left to give the UA a one-point lead.

2011 Elite Eight Connecticut 65, Arizona 63

• What happened: Williams and Jamelle Horne each missed three-point attempts in the final seven seconds as the Cats lost to the eventual national champ.

Luck?

Ken Pomeroy's "Luck" statistic measures teams that win an inordinate number of close games. Four of the Pac-12's five likely NCAA tournament teams - all but Arizona - measure high on the "Luck" list, among 347 teams:

24

UCLA

39

Oregon

66

Cal

77

Colorado

168

Arizona

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