Once undefeated, ranked third in the country and living up to lofty preseason expectations, Arizona enters the NCAA Tournament Thursday night as the No. 6 seed in the West Regional.
The Wildcats haven’t exactly collapsed since their 14-0 start this season, but expectations for them have melted away like the spring snowpack along the Wasatch Front.
Consider: In the last 12 years, only three teams seeded as low as Arizona — Butler and VCU in 2011 and George Mason in 2006 — have reached the Final Four.
Translation: While Arizona has flashed the ability to make a deep run in the tournament, nobody — especially those on the selection committee — believes it will happen.
Arizona coach Sean Miller isn’t concerned.
“I’m happy to have a sixth seed,” he said Wednesday. “Four times six is 24. So you’re among the top 24 teams in the country — somewhere between 20 and 24. I’d say that’s accurate in describing our team.”
But things looked even rosier for the Wildcats 75 days ago.
On Jan. 5, Arizona scored a 70-67 win over the University of Utah for its 14th consecutive win. It appeared the Wildcats were the real deal, which is what everyone anticipated from the beginning.
With three starters back from a 23-win team in 2011-12 and the arrival of a top-five recruiting class, Arizona was ranked eighth by the Sporting News and ninth by Yahoo! Sports in their preseason polls.
On the court, the Wildcats looked like the class of the Pac-12, especially after a handful of impressive non-conference wins over high-regarded opponents like Florida (65-64), San Diego State (68-67) and Southern Mississippi (63-54).
Looking back, however, Arizona’s opening weekend of conference play showed some vulnerability. Playing at home, the Wildcats needed a beneficial call to reach overtime against Colorado. They eventually prevailed 92-83.
Two days later, Arizona survived a 3-pointer that would have tied the game in its hard-earned victory over Utah.
“We pulled out another lucky one,” senior Kevin Parrom told the Arizona Daily Star. “We’ve been lucky for a couple of weeks now, but our luck is going to run out soon.”
Arizona went 10-6 during the rest of the Pac-12 season, ended up in a three-way tie for second place and lost to UCLA in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
The frustrating finish came to a head with Miller confronting an official after the UCLA game, which resulted in a public reprimand by commissioner Larry Scott and a $25,000 fine. Still, with a 25-7 overall record, Arizona was assured of an at-large bid to the tournament.
The Wildcats looked to be in line for a No. 4 or No. 5 seed, thanks to those high-profile early-season wins. But the committee sent them to Salt Lake City as a No. 6. Solomon Miller agrees with his coach.
“As far as your seed number, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everybody in the field is a really good team. … I don’t think it’s a motivator. If you need something to motivate you at this point, you’re here for the wrong reasons.”
No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 11 Belmont
O At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • Thursday, 5:20 p.m. TV • TNT
Records • Arizona, 25-7; Belmont 26-6
Series history • First meeting
About the Wildcats • This is their 30th NCAA Tournament appearance. … They have been to four Final Fours since 1988 and won the national championship in 1997. … They are led by senior G Mark Lyons (14.8) and senior F Solomon Hill (13.4).
About the Bruins • They beat Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, 70-68 in overtime. … They have won six straight games. … They are led by senior G Ian Clark (18.1).