Some college basketball coaches like to break the NCAA tournament into three mini-tournaments as a way to prevent looking too far ahead. Each weekend features four teams at one location and only one team advances.
For Sean Miller and the Arizona Wildcats, this is the mini-tournament that matters.
The Cats spent last week in Portland, Oregon, and emerged as expected from the foursome including Texas Southern and Ohio State. Next is a trip to L.A. to battle Xavier for the right to face the Wisconsin / North Carolina winner.
Four teams, three games at Staples Center and the survivor cuts down the nets as champions of the West Region.
The Wildcats’ Miller has made the second week of the NCAA tournament his second home. He is a perfect 12-0 in opening-weekend games in his last six trips to the Big Dance across two jobs. There’s no reason to print Sweet Sixteen t-shirts (but the UA does anyway).
Week 2 has been a different story. In those six appearances – his last two at Xavier and the four at Arizona – Miller is 3-2 in the round of 16 and, as the entire sporting world knows, oh-for-three in the Elite Eight.
Winning two games this week won’t validate Miller’s young career because his bio doesn’t need validation. He’s piling up conference championships (six in the last nine seasons) and he’s only lost once as the better seed in the tournament (last year’s overtime heart-masher in the 1 vs. 2 showdown with the Badgers).
Miller is an exceptional young coach with a limitless future no matter what happens this week. But winning that first regional final would put the program’s progression into hyperdrive. If you think Miller is a recruiting force now, wait until he hits the road with Final Four momentum at his back.
The proverbial “next level” awaits in Los Angeles.
For the players, this week will establish their legacy as Wildcats. It’s not fair that an entire season or even a college career is judged by one or two games at the end but that’s the way it works in this thing they call Madness.
Sean Elliott was the Wooden Award winner in 1989 but no one makes rap videos about teams that lose in the Sweet Sixteen. Damon Stoudamire won the Pac-12 Player of the Year award in 1995 but all Wildcat fans remember about that season is Miami of Ohio.
Here’s a ridiculously rhetorical question: Which UA team is more beloved, the 1998 squad that went 17-1 in the Pac-10 but lost in the Elite Eight, or the ’97 team with the same players that went 11-7 in conference play before “One National Championship”?
If you stop the 2015 season right now and look at the full body of work – 33-3 record, Pac-12 regular season and tournament championships – it’s already on the short list of Arizona’s best ever. Here’s the competition:
1998 – 27-4 regular season, 17-1 Pac-10 (no Pac-10 tournament that year)
1993 – 24-3 regular season, 17-1 Pac-10 (no Pac-10 tournament that year)
1989 – 24-3 regular season, 17-1 Pac-10, Pac-10 tournament champs
1988 – 28-2 regular season, 17-1 Pac-10, Pac-10 tournament champs
That is an impressive list. For the 2015 Wildcats to have a resume belonging in the top five of the program’s history is really saying something.
Yet, from that group, only ’88 elicits truly joyous memories for Wildcat fans. That’s because Arizona’s Mount Rushmore status is reserved for teams and players that go the Final Four.
It’s pressure but it’s good pressure. Coaches and players come to places like the UA in order to play in four-team mini-tournaments featuring schools with a combined 21 Final Fours and six national championships.
This is it. This is the week.
The business is needs finishing.
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