Judging by just about every college basketball metric out there this week, the Arizona Wildcats are still a solid bet for an No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.
The Wildcats, who moved up to No. 3 in both major Top 25 polls Monday, have the No. 2 overall RPI, behind only Kansas. And they’re No. 1 in three well-regarded ratings: Sagarin, ESPN’s BPI and KenPom.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi even has the Wildcats as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
Just getting any of the four top seeds means the Wildcats would receive a potentially much easier game in their NCAA tournament opener, and a preferential San Diego-Anaheim, Calif., path toward the Final Four.
But UA coach Sean Miller has two issues with that. One, he’s never coached a No. 1-seeded team, so he doesn’t know how much of an advantage it might be.
Two, he really doesn’t want to think about being a No. 1 seed.
Not now, that is. Not with four potentially tough games left in the regular season, starting with California (Wednesday) and Stanford (Sunday) at McKale Center, and then the Pac-12 tournament.
“I think the biggest thing for us as a team is that there is so much hysteria surrounding March, and rightfully so — it’s an exciting time,” Miller said Monday during his weekly news conference at McKale. “You have your conference regular season race coming to a close, you have the conference tournament, teams that are fighting to be a part of the NCAA tournament, and teams that are fighting for higher seeds.
“Everybody seems to have an opinion, and it can be very distracting for a group of players or team. … The minute you seem to worry about the things that maybe aren’t here yet, take your eyes off what’s the most important, all of a sudden you don’t play well. In our case, especially this week, if we don’t play well against Cal or Stanford, we’re not gonna win, because they’re both very good teams.”
Maybe it helps the Wildcats that one of their major goals is now immediately in front of them. They have a two-game lead over UCLA in the Pac-12 race, meaning they can at least clinch a tie for the conference title with a sweep this week.
A sweep of Cal and Stanford would also clinch the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament for Arizona. The Wildcats own a tiebreaker over UCLA because they beat the Bruins last month and won’t play them again.
After that, UA can ponder other goals.
“We obviously want to be a No. 1 (NCAA tournament) seed,” guard Nick Johnson said. “Our first goal was to win the championship. If we do that, then we’ll be set up to be a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.”
Didn’t see UA’s 27-point blowout coming? Miller is aware many outside his program didn’t, either, with UA’s scoring down after losing Brandon Ashley to a leg injury on Feb. 1.
“We never lost our confidence,” Miller said. “You guys may have lost confidence in us. I know we’ve struggled. But among our struggles, I’ve felt like we’ve kept our head above water.”
Miller said the Wildcats practiced well leading up to their 88-61 win at Colorado on Saturday, and are continuing to learn even as the regular season wraps up, when it becomes tempting for teams to “fast forward from one game to the next” without giving meaning to practice.
“The teams that grow and continue to get better … we’ve been that team from the start,” he said. “We’ve had very few blips on the screen when it comes to effort, attitude, chemistry.
“Even on our road trip, we practiced hard, we didn’t take any days off in between, and everyone was ready to go. When you do that, it gives you a chance to give a good performance.”
Marveling over McConnell
While Stanford forward Josh Huestis beat out UA point guard T.J. McConnell for the Pac-12’s Player of the Week award on Monday, Miller left no doubt about how he felt about McConnell’s play at Utah and Colorado.
The junior point guard averaged 10 points, eight assists, 3.5 steals and zero turnovers in the two games.
“You can’t put a value on that of how well he runs our team and how much easier the game is because he’s out there playing that way, not to mention his steals,” Miller said. “You think about the steals he had, the assists he had, and there wasn’t a point guard last week who played better than he played for us.”
All that came after McConnell had two assists and six turnovers in UA’s Feb. 14 loss at ASU, a game Miller described as a one-off.
“Really, from the onset, T.J. has taken care of the ball,” he said. “It’s like a college quarterback. As much as you trust him, as responsible as he is, as well as he sees the field, there’s always those games where he makes a bad decision or the defense plays great and because of that has a few uncharacteristic turnovers.
“I would say the same about T.J. His six turnovers in the Arizona State game were one of many things we didn’t do well in that game, and that’s why we lost.”