The Arizona Wildcats will play in the postseason for the first time since 2011. It’s just a matter of where.
The UA will learn on Monday whether its been accepted to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team or, more likely, it’s headed for the WNIT.
Coach Adia Barnes thinks her Wildcats have an outside shot at the NCAAs, and, she says, it’s easy to see why. Arizona (18-13) is in the middle of the biggest single-season turnaround in program history.
“Despite our RPI being a little bit lower we’ve peaked late in the season and we’re playing some good basketball,” she said. “I think we’ve had some key wins against some really good opponents that will do well in the (NCAA) Tournament. And, we have seven wins in the best conference in the country.
“If you look at the top 10 teams in the country, we’ve played two or three of them very competitively more than once. So I think we can definitely get some wins in the tournament. And, I don’t think anyone in the tournament would want to play us first or second round.”
Of course, a WNIT bid would certainly be welcome, too. Merely making the postseason is a bit ahead of schedule for a team in the midst of a rebuild.
“I think it’s all exciting. Regardless of what it is, whether it’s NCAA tournament or the NIT, I think it’s a really good step for this program,” Barnes said. “It’s really good for the young players to get experience. Once you get that experience, you are hungry for more.
“Then the bar is raised for next year. It’s a much different feeling. Then you don’t go into the season planning to have a free spring break. You know spring break is out the door. You’re planning to play. It’s really changes the mentality because when you have a taste of some success, you want more. I think the Pac-12 Tournament gave that to us. It brought some of that hunger to us.”
Selection committees generally focus on how teams finish, and the Wildcats — it could be argued — finished well. The team went 4-7 after Feb. 1, beating Washington, Utah and Colorado and then topping USC in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Arizona also took two top-10 teams to the brink of upsets. The UA fell to Stanford by two points in Northern California, and fell to Oregon State by five points in double-overtime in Tucson.
The Wildcats played Oregon, the Pac-12’s regular-season champion, twice in the final week of play. Arizona managed to cut the margin of defeat from 29 points (an 83-54 loss on March 1) to 14 points (a 77-63 loss on March 8).
“We’re talking about a No. 2 seed in the country (in the NCAA Tournament) that we competed with,” Barnes said. “We felt like we could play against anybody. We felt like we had nothing to lose.”
The Wildcats believe their best basketball is ahead of them.
“Coach Adia has said a bunch, ‘We haven’t played a full game of 40 minutes’ where we’ve played great every single second,” said freshman standout Cate Reese. “Once we put that all together, we’ll be a really amazing team. I think we are a great team now but we haven’t reached our full potential yet.”
The Wildcats took a few days off following last week’s Pac-12 Tournament loss, returning to the gym on Tuesday. The Wildcats have been working on individual skills while they await their next opponent. Barnes said they’ve taken on the mindset of being “underdogs (who) beat teams that no one thought we could beat.”
It’s a reason why the Wildcats expect to still be playing in March.
“For us, we are excited about next week,” Barnes said. “We’re not nervous. We’re not devastated either way it goes. We just want to play. We want to make some noise. If it’s to go to the NIT, our goal is to win the NIT. If it’s to go to the (NCAA) Tournament, we’re going to try to win some games.”