The National Invitation Tournament telephoned Arizona for the first time in 61 years Sunday, and the Wildcats had no choice but to pick up the phone.
Spoiled by decades of NCAA tournament appearances, and ignored by the NIT in 2010, the Wildcats this time earned a No. 1 seed in what has become college basketball's top consolation event, with a first-round date against eighth-seeded Bucknell on Wednesday at McKale Center.
Thanks to their 87-80 loss at ASU on March 4, which dropped their RPI and power ratings out of NCAA at-large bid range, the Wildcats knew their reality immediately after their Pac-12 tournament title game loss to Colorado on Saturday.
It was the NIT, or nothing, really. And for seniors such as Jesse Perry, the choice was easy.
"We don't stop here," Perry said. "The NIT is a great (tournament) and this is my last time. I'm going to play as much as I can."
Since NIT games are played at the site of the higher-seeded team for the first three rounds, with three-game winners advancing to New York for the semifinals, Arizona will have the right to host all three early round games if it can keep winning.
If they beat Bucknell, the Wildcats probably would host either Oral Roberts or Nevada sometime between Saturday and Monday, giving them a chance to rest a short-handed lineup that has been playing without suspended point guard Josiah Turner.
A third-round, or quarterfinal game, would then be played March 20 and 21. The semifinals are March 27 and the final on March 29.
"It will still be good for us," guard Jordin Mayes said, after Colorado beat UA on Saturday. "We'll be playing basketball instead of sitting around. There's a lot of good teams in the NIT that didn't make the NCAA tournament, so it'll be challenging to compete."
Also after Saturday's game, freshman guard Nick Johnson expressed interest.
"I mean, it's the postseason, so we've got to keep on going," he said. "I want to win as many games as possible."
UA coach Sean Miller was not available for comment Sunday but he issued a statement saying he was pleased with the draw.
"We are excited to be a No. 1 seed in the NIT and play in front of our great fans," Miller said. "We look forward to the challenge of playing Bucknell, a team that has won a conference championship."
Miller said after the Colorado game that he wanted "to get these guys as far as we can" and keep competing.
"It has everything to do with trying to have a magical season to win as many games and compete for championships," he said Saturday. "I think we all know our next loss will be our last."
Miller has said that the NIT is a worthy tournament since being taken over by the NCAA in 2005. A committee headed by former Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton issues automatic bids to teams who win their conferences, but lose in the conference tournament and are not invited to the NCAA tournament (such as Bucknell) - as well as at-large teams determined by a similar formula that the NCAA committee uses.
Previously, the NIT was known for divvying second-tier teams up and haphazardly assigning home games often to the teams with the best potential to draw big crowds.
"The NIT has changed," Miller said. "I don't think everybody's up to date with it. There are 32 teams in that tournament. You don't get in that tournament because you have sellouts. You get into that tournament because you earn it."
However, there's little doubt that Miller and the Wildcats were hoping to earn something else Sunday.
"When you're the head coach at Arizona," Miller said last week, "it's about winning or competing for an NCAA championship. It's about being part of the NCAA tournament and it's about having a team that can advance in the NCAA tournament."
NIT ticket info
• Who: No. 8 Bucknell at No. 1 Arizona
• When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
• Where: McKale Center
• Cost: $25 (general public), $15 (seniors), $5 (students)
• To order: Call 621-CATS starting at 9 a.m. today
Times Arizona has missed the NCAA tournament in the past 28 seasons (although appearances in 1999 and 2008 were later vacated because of NCAA violations)
Years since the Wildcats competed in the National Invitation Tournament
Arizona's final regular-season official RPI
Arizona's NIT history
The UA has not played in the postseason NIT since it was college basketball's premier postseason event. Its all-time results:
• 1946 Kentucky L, 77-53
• 1950 La Salle L, 72-66
• 1951 Dayton L, 74-68