The Arizona Wildcats find themselves in the same precarious space they occupied a year ago at this time: floating like a knuckleball on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
But UA coach Jay Johnson, for one, believes the Cats are in a better position than last Memorial Day, when they were one of the tournament’s first four out.
Why might this team avoid the bitter disappointment that that one endured?
Although the NCAA Selection Committee’s criteria are, as Johnson put it, “a moving target,” several factors appear to favor Arizona’s inclusion.
One is that the Wildcats are one of the hottest teams in the nation. They finished the regular season by winning 10 in a row and 13 of their final 14.
But it wasn’t just that Arizona won and kept winning to boost its record to 32-24, 15-14 in the Pac-12. The Wildcats authored “a completely dominating month of May,” Johnson said. Even with a 10-7 loss to Arizona State on May 7, Arizona has outscored its opponents by an average of 8.3 runs this month.
“You look at two things that tend to play into this,” Johnson said. “No. 1 is how you finish, whether you’re talking about the NCAA basketball tournament or baseball tournament. Teams that win 13 out of 14 get in.
“I’ve heard a lot with the evolution of the College Football Playoff about the eye test. Watching our team play right now, as the committee should be, we more than pass the eye test.”
Arizona had a similar upper-40s RPI at the end of last season, a slightly better overall record (34-22) but a sub-.500 mark in the Pac-12 (14-16).
The latter seemed to matter most to the selection committee; only one at-large entry, Texas A&M, had an under-.500 conference record.
The UA made sure that wouldn’t be an issue by sweeping Washington State. After losing a conference home game because of a weather-related cancellation against USC, the Wildcats had no margin for error. Yet only one of the games was competitive, and Arizona pulled away in the ninth inning to win that one 10-4.
“The Pac-12 is considered one of the best baseball leagues in the country” — No. 4 in conference RPI — “and I believe (it) was as good as it’s been in the four years that I’ve been in the conference,” Johnson said. “We came out with a winning record. We did that getting to play one less home game than (usual).
“Under last year’s criteria, if you look at strong finish and winning record in a power conference, those things were rewarded. If they stay to that criteria, then you have to like where we’re at.”
There’s no guarantee that will be the case, however. And it isn’t hard to find holes in Arizona’s résumé.
The biggest one: The Wildcats went 3-16 against teams in the RPI top 50. That includes being swept on the road against UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon State.
The Bruins are No. 2 in RPI. The UA won a game at Stanford, which is No. 10. Fifteen of those 19 games were away from Hi Corbett Field.
Arizona suffered some rough losses at home early in the season, falling to New Mexico (No. 166 in RPI), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (145) and Michigan State (162). Although they all count, one could argue the Wildcats are a different team now. Johnson would suggest they’ve been a different team since that loss to ASU.
He held a team lengthy meeting after the game, which Arizona led 7-5 entering the seventh inning. The game turned on an error.
“We talked about the next step as a program, of not being OK with losing a tough game like that,” Johnson said.
“Really understanding what it means to pour your heart into everything and … invest everything that we could for these 10 games. We did that. I’m really proud of them.”
Johnson is most proud of the fact that the Wildcats didn’t give up on the season. It would have been easy to do so.
Regardless of what happens Monday, Arizona gave it its best shot.
“It’s interesting,” Johnson said. “That’s society now. It’s pack up your ball and go home when things don’t go your way.
“They did not do that. They kept their eye on improvement and their eye on competing. I just think we made a massive step in growth in terms of always playing with urgency, but doing it with a very free spirit or light load mentally.
“There were plenty of reasons and excuses to turn and walk away from it. Instead, they walked toward the fight.
“Given the opportunity next weekend, I have great confidence in what we’ll be able to accomplish.”
- Some of Sunday’s conference tournament results could hurt bubble teams such as Arizona. Upsets in the AAC, Big Ten and Conference USA will make the squeeze on at-large berths that much tighter.
- UA utility man Justin Wylie will have a good case for Pac-12 Player of the Week after going 8 for 12 with three home runs, six runs scored and seven RBIs in three games at Washington State. The senior has raised his batting average from .231 to .341 since April 20, going 30 for 69 (.435) over that span with 13 doubles, 24 runs and 24 RBIs.
- Wylie’s three-run homer Friday gave Arizona a 5-4 lead in the sixth. Four relievers – Vince Vannelle, Avery Weems, Quinn Flanagan and George Arias Jr. — combined to pitch 4ª scoreless innings to finish the game. “Best bullpen performance of the year,” Johnson said.
- Right fielder Blake Paugh aided the bullpen by throwing a runner out at third base in the bottom of the seventh Friday. The strong-armed sophomore will train to become a two-way player next season, Johnson said.
- UA junior third baseman Nick Quintana finished the regular season atop the Pac-12 with 77 RBIs — 16 clear of second-place Hunter Bishop of ASU. Austin Wells, Cameron Cannon and Quintana rank 1-2-3 in runs scored. Cannon paces the conference with 29 doubles. He ranks third in batting average (.397).