It's safe to smile again after the win at NC State.
Photo by Chris Morrison/US Presswire

The funk has lifted.

The Arizona Wildcats basketball team returned to feeling good after posting its best non-conference win of the season at North Carolina State.

How should we be feeling about the Cats returning to the NCAA tournament?

After the sleepwalking against Fullerton, the beating vs. BYU, and the awkwardness against NAU, a double-digit win without trailing in the 2nd half was a welcome sight.

There’s one final tune-up (Robert Morris on Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m.) before the start of Pac-10 play. At this point we’ve got a good handle on what to expect from this team.

Rebounding is going to be a challenge for the 2011 Wildcats. It’ll have to be a team effort with Jesse Perry and Kyryl Natyazhko pulling down boards off the bench and Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom contributing from the wings.

Jamelle Horne is what he is. He’ll tease you with high-flying acrobatics and deep threes but he’ll frustrate you with turnovers inbounding the ball and tipping rebounds into the wrong basket. If you were holding out hope the senior would have an epiphany you’re going to have to leave that to the Magi.

The outside shooting will remain inconsistent. Starters Kyle Fogg and MoMo Jones are both at 30% shooting from beyond the arc. Brendon Lavender and Jordin Mayes are decent off the bench but neither is a threat to score 20 points.

Then again, that could be said about the entire team. Besides Derrick Williams the other Cats combined have only two 20-point games. Hill had 20 against Santa Clara and Jones hit 20 after a lot of garbage-time scoring against BYU.

With such a heavy reliance on one guy it’s not surprising that zones have been successful against this team. Surround Williams on every touch and dare the other guys to beat you. When the shot goes up secure the defensive rebound and you’re off and running.

That’s what made the win against NC State so satisfying. Arizona barely broke 70 yet won by 10 thanks to holding the Wolfpack to 32% shooting. The energy was great in the second half and at the end of the game the Cats were defending like they were the ones trailing.

Yes, North Carolina State was missing its best player due to injury. That could work in the UA’s favor a second time if he can come back and lead NCSU to a solid year in ACC play. Life on the NCAA tournament bubble means it’s never too early to start rooting for the teams you played to enhance your resume.

Is Arizona a bubble team? The 10-2 record combined with the low strength of schedule says yes. The Cats estimated RPI was at 62 before this weekend which means they’re in the discussion if they can keep piling up wins.

How many wins need to be on this pile?

Here’s a look at the final teams to get at-large bids in each of the last three tournaments:

Year Seed Team Record Rpi
2010 #12 Utah St. 27-7 40
#12 UTEP 26-6 42
#11 Minnesota 21-13 63
#10 Missouri 22-10 43
#10 Florida 21-12 59
#10 Georgia Tech 22-12 29
2009 #12 Wisconsin 19-12 42
#12 Arizona 19-13 49
#11 Dayton 26-7 27
#10 Minnesota 22-10 46
#10 Maryland 20-13 50
#10 Michigan 20-13 40
2008 #12 Villanova 20-12 44
#11 Kansas St. 20-11 53
#11 St. Joseph’s 21-12 47
#11 Baylor 21-10 52
#11 Kentucky 18-12 75
#10 South Alabama 26-6 38
#10 Arizona 19-14 50
#10 St. Mary’s 25-6 37

Looking at Minnesota and Florida from last year, Maryland from 2009 and Baylor in 2008, 21 wins seems like a fair target for getting RPI-challenged BCS-conference teams into the mix.

That means Arizona needs at least 11 more wins, including Robert Morris. It would also help if some of those wins were against the projected top of the Pac-10: Washington, WSU and the BYU-killers of UCLA.

The good news is the Cats start Pac-10 play with the two worst teams in the league in the Oregon schools. The bad news is the games are on the road. The worst news is they’re after a seven-day layoff over Christmas.

The optimism is certainly back after winning a game in ACC country. It won’t be long now before we see how optimism stacks up with reality.

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Scott Terrell is optimistic that you like Facebook and Twitter.