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March 26, 2009
Around the Rim
The Wildcats Pounce

by John Perrotto

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Perhaps we should ask Dewey Pennell to fill out our brackets next March.

It was the father of Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell who predicted that the Wildcats would not only get into the NCAA tournament but make it to the Sweet 16.

The odds certainly seemed against that happening when Arizona lost to Arizona State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles. The loss left the Wildcats with a 19-13 record, including losses in five of their last six games, and a 6-10 mark against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI.

Arizona's streak of 24 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, the longest active run in the nation, seemed destined to end. Yet as the Wildcats got ready to walk out of the Staples Center following their loss to the archrival Sun Devils, they believed they would play into late into March and that they wouldn't be doing so in the NIT or one of its imitators.

Sure enough, the Wildcats find themselves among the final 16 as they will face overall top seed Louisville in the Midwest Regional semifinals Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

"We knew we could be here all along," junior guard Nic Wise said. "Coach Dewey told me five weeks ago we could be here. After that loss in the ASU game, I told my team I wanted to be in the national championship game. That's the way we're playing. We know we can play here and we have the talent to do it. We're proving it now and we're peaking at the right time."

The 12th seed in the Midwest, Arizona is the only team seeded higher than a No. 5 remaining in the field. However, that is only part of the Wildcats' wild ride to this point.

Arizona is playing under an interim coach for the second straight season. Assistant Kevin O'Neill filled in during the 2007-08 season after Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson suffered a stroke. O'Neill was pegged to be Olson's eventual successor.

However, O'Neill and Olson had a falling out, resulting in O'Neill leaving the program. On the eve of the first practice this season, Olson abruptly retired and was replaced by Pennell, in his first season as an assistant on the Wildcats' staff after spending the previous two years as the color commentator on Arizona State radio broadcasts. Pennell got the job only after another assistant, Mike Dunlap, turned it down because he wanted the gig permanently.

"I don't think anybody signed up for what has happened, especially me, Nic and [center] Jordan Hill coming here three years ago," junior guard Chase Budinger said. "We thought we would be playing for one coach our whole college career. You know, things change. You just have to go with it and stay positive, and I think that's what we've done.

"Making it to the Sweet 16 feels great for us. We have the team to do it and we're showing that we're a lot better than what people thought of us."

Russ Pennell understood why the tournament selection committee was criticized for picking Arizona over such mid-majors as Creighton, Saint Mary's and San Diego State. However, he also believes his team deserved their bid, and had no apologies to make.

"We felt like even thought we lost some of those games down the stretch, we played well," Pennell said. "We played one of our better games at Washington and got beat, played one of our better second halves at Arizona State and got beat. So, I don't feel like we were limping into the tournament. A lot of people wrote that and said that but I never felt that way. It's just we didn't finish the deal a couple of times."

Indeed, three of Arizona's five late-season losses were by six points or less to teams that made the NCAA tournament: 70-68 at Arizona State, 83-78 at Washington and 83-77 to California. Now, Arizona has turned those close defeats into victories in the NCAA tournament.

If the Wildcats continue their surprising run, it will be by leaning on their high-octane offense. They are seventh in the nation in Pomeroy adjusted offensive efficiency with a 118.5 mark as opposed to 119th in defensive efficiency at 98.4.

Hill has been the Wildcats' best player as he is 15th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (15.1), 75th in defensive rebounding percentage (22.2), 88th in percentage of minutes played (86.5) 103rd in percentage of possessions (28.1), 132nd in block percentage (5.8) and 174th in percentage of shots (28.5).

"It's interesting when you look at the NCAA tournament," Pennell said. "A lot of times the teams that get hot at the right time are the teams that had to struggle to get in and maybe got beat early in their conference tournament. I don't if it makes you refocus. I'm not sure what it is but we're playing well now."

Big East Breaks Records

Mike Tranghese, in his final season as Big East commissioner before he retires, is justifiably proud that his conference has five teams remaining in the tournament. It is the first time in history one conference has had that many teams in the Sweet 16.

In addition to Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Villanova remain alive.

"I don't know if I enjoyed the games, though," Tranghese told the New York Daily News' Dick Weiss about watching the first two rounds. "We were in a survival mode. If our league had slipped, all the people who said so many wonderful things about us would have come out of the woodwork and crucified us. I think this validates what we've accomplished."

The Big East had three teams get to the Final Four in 1985 when Villanova stunned Georgetown in the finals after St. John's was knocked off in the semifinals. That could happen again this season as the Big East has teams alive in all four regionals.

The Pomeroy Ratings have Connecticut ranked No. 2 in the country while Louisville is No. 4, Pittsburgh is No. 5, Syracuse is No. 12 and Villanova is No. 18. However, they also have the Big East ranked as the nation's second-strongest conference this season behind the Pac-10, though that league has only one team left in Arizona.

While the Big East has a 31 percent chance of producing the national champion, Tranghese is keeping his fingers crossed.

"I do think [North] Carolina has the most talented team but we have a lot of teams that can play with anybody," he said.

Woodside Impresses

The rest of the country found out in the first round of the NCAA tournament what followers of the Summit League had known for four years. North Dakota State senior guard Ben Woodside was one the best-kept secrets in the country.

Woodside had quite the collegiate finale in the Bison's 84-74 loss to defending national champion Kansas. He scored 37 points, making 13 of 23 field goal attempts, including three of seven from three-point range, and ten of his 12 free throws.

Woodside is ninth in the nation in percentage of possessions (33.5), 14th in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (7.1), 17th in assist rate (37.2), 26th in fouls called per 40 minutes (1.6), 74th in percent of shots (30.8), 77th in offensive rating (119.2), 136th in true shooting percentage (60.4), 145th in percentage of minutes (84.5) and 170th in free throw rate (54.6).

"Coach (Bill Self) explained to us how tough he was but I didn't think he was that good," Kansas guard Sherron Collins said. "He is really talented and can probably do some things with it."

Self said, "We haven't played anybody harder to guard than him. He's a terrific player."

Grant in Demand

Virginia Commonwealth coach Anthony Grant has been the object of desire of many major programs in the last few years. The former top assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida may finally be on the verge of leaving the Rams. Alabama has offered Grant a deal that would pay him more than $2 million a year along with the promise the university will make a greater commitment to basketball.

Virginia Commonwealth has gone to the NCAA tournament twice in Grant's three seasons, compiling a 76-25 record in that time. The Rams upset Duke in the first round of the NCAAs in 2007 before losing to Pittsburgh in overtime in the second round, then lost to UCLA 65-64 in the first round this year.

Xavier's Sean Miller is reportedly at the top of Virginia's wish list to replace Dave Leitao. However, Miller is very happy at Xavier and said to be willing to leave only for the "right job."

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
Sweet 16 (03/25)
<< Previous Column
Around the Rim (03/18)
Next Column >>
Around the Rim (04/02)
Next Article >>
Bracket Breakdown (03/26)

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