When their at-large NCAA tournament hopes began fading last month, Arizona freshmen Derrick Williams and MoMo Jones insisted they were not interested in the NIT.
They better be now.
"Anyone who said that can go somewhere else," Arizona coach Sean Miller said Thursday, after Arizona lost 75-69 to UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals. "When you have an opportunity to play in the NIT, it's an honor. It's not our goal, but when you look at the programs who will be in the NIT, there are terrific programs and great players."
The real question this weekend is whether the NIT is interested in Arizona. After Thursday's loss, the Wildcats are stuck at 16-15, with an RPI of 94 and a Sagarin rating of 85, sitting squarely on the NIT's bubble.
The NIT may have even fewer at-large bids to give than ever, too. College basketball's secondary postseason tournament has only 32 spots, and eight of them have already been taken by automatic qualifiers who won their conference regular-season title but probably will not reach the NCAA tournament.
As of Friday, NITology.com, which says it correctly predicted 31 of the 32 NIT teams last season, has the Wildcats listed as a No. 7 seed. Another projection Web site, the NIT Bracket Project does not have Arizona in the field.
The bids will be announced Sunday at 6 p.m.
Arizona officials have already told the College Basketball Invitational tournament they are not interested in a bid.
Miller said a third win over UCLA on Thursday would have helped ensure an NIT bid but that he still felt good about the Wildcats' chances, with Arizona having played what kenpom.com rated the No. 11 nonconference schedule and having won 10 Pac-10 games.
Even if the Wildcats do get in, they may have to play all their NIT games on the road. The NIT's format since 2005, when the NCAA bought the event, has been to give higher-seeded teams the option to host each of the first three rounds, after which the four region winners go to New York for the semifinals.
Along the way, the Wildcats could run into some other frequent NCAA tournament participants, such as Memphis, Connecticut, Illinois and Cincinnati.
"When you see the teams that advance in the NIT, that field is going to be very representative of an NCAA tournament field," Miller said. "It's one of the reasons they're talking about expanding the NCAA (tournament) because of the depth and quality of the NIT. So if we're fortunate enough to get a bid it would be an honor. I'm also gonna tell you that first game will be really hard."
Miller's enthusiasm and his rather hard sales pitch apparently have rubbed off on his team. Several Wildcats quizzed after Thursday's game said they wanted to play in the event after all.
In the "postseason, any tournament is good," forward Kevin Parrom said. "It's something. Not that anybody's settling for anything, but it's better to take something than nothing, and we can just get better for the next season."
Even Williams sounded like he had warmed up to the idea.
"Any basketball player wants to keep playing," Williams said. "It's a new season."
For senior guard Nic Wise, it's the last season, too. One that he isn't ready to end.
"My career is not over," he said Thursday. "I don't think so."
He'll know for sure Sunday night.
On StarNet: Follow the Cats as they prepare for a possible postseason journey at azstarnet.com/wildcats and
Both tournaments announce their selections on Sunday
• NCAA: 3 p.m., Channel 13
• NIT: 6 p.m., ESPNU
Teams that won their conference's regular-season title, but did not win their conference tournament, are guaranteed one of 32 NIT bids, if they do not receive an NCAA tournament at-large bid. Eight conference champions appear headed to the NIT as of Friday afternoon:
Weber State (Big Sky, 20-10)
Troy (Sun Belt, 20-12)
Coastal Carolina (Big South, 28-6)
Quinnipiac (Northeast, 23-9)
Jacksonville (Atlantic Sun, 19-12)
Stony Brook (America East, 22-9)
Jackson State (SWAC, 19-12)
Kent State (Mid-American, 23-9)