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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona begins their road to the Final Four against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks

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Simon Asher

Arizona head coach Sean Miller calls a player to the court during the Arizona-Oregon game on Saturday, March 11. 

SALT LAKE CITY — The Pac-12 Conference regular season and tournament champion Arizona Wildcats arrived in Salt Lake City for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

The No. 2 seed Wildcats open up the first round on Thursday against No. 15 seed North Dakota Fighting Hawks. 

Just like Arizona, the Fighting Hawks enter the tournament on a roll. 

North Dakota won the Big Sky Conference tournament last week with a 93-89 overtime victory against Weber State and for the Fighting Hawks, it’s the first time they’ve been to the big dance as a Division-I school. 

“It’s a thrill to be here,” said North Dakota head coach Brian Jones. ”A lot of work has paid off.”

As much of a thrill as it is for the Fighting Hawks to play in their first tournament in search of an historic upset, they may be running into a buzz saw.

The Wildcats enter the tournament playing their best basketball of the season after victories over UCLA and Oregon on back-to-back nights en route to the Pac-12 Tournament title.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller alluded the Wildcats have finally had “a really good stretch of health” and besides being at full strength, Allonzo Trier has hit his mid-season stride for the Wildcats.

“Allonzo I believe is one of the best guards in the tournament, hIs numbers speak for themselves,” Miller said. “The thing that I’m proudest of him, and I think that our team appreciates the most, is how he has learned to pass the ball, play with others better than he ever has before.”

Trier was named the Pac-12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after averaging 20.7 points and shooting 48 percent over three days in Las Vegas.

If anyone is going to beat Arizona on the first weekend it starts with locking down Trier and Arizona’s other big weapon.

“Right now [Lauri] Markkanen is our big focus, a big guy that can stretch the floor,” said North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker. “Trier is a great player too so being able to slow him down and slow down some of his touches is something we’re focused on.”

Hooker, the Big Sky Conference Tournament MVP, said that in order to win, the Fighting Hawks have to outrebound the Wildcats. He even went as far to say that beating Arizona on the boards is going to be a big expectation for them.

That might be tough given the size or lack thereof. 

North Dakota’s tallest projected starter tomorrow is junior Drick Bernstine, a 6’8 power forward who is one inch taller than starting center Conner Avants. The matchup is similar to some of Arizona’s early season matchups in the sense that the Wildcats will have a decided height advantage.

With the Wildcats utilizing multiple bigs who can run the floor, the Fighting Hawks will have to hope the back court combination of Hooker and sophomore Geno Crandall can have a big night.

Hooker has the ability to have a huge night, he scored a career-high 35 points at Eastern Washington this season, but standing at 6’0, Hooker will have a tall task getting by the likes of Trier and Kadeem Allen.

“We’ve been playing against talented guards all year,” Allen said. ”It’s not new to us.”

Parker Jackson-Cartwright said the Wildcats have a lot of respect for Hooker and Crandall and that Arizona’s identity all season has been to not take any opponents for granted.

After last season’s first round loss to Wichita State, the Wildcats won’t be taking anything for granted this time around.

“Wichita State last year, they made our program better, they really did,” Miller said. “It’s not just that we lost in the first round. Wichita State a year ago, they were bigger, stronger, they were better coached. They were more ready. In the first eight minutes of that game, it was over.”

Only eight times in the history of the NCAA Tournament has a 15 seed knocked off a 2 seed and it happened last year when Middle Tennessee took down the Michigan State Spartans 90-81 in the first round.

If the Fighting Hawks want to become the ninth 15 seed in history to advance, they’ll have to get through an Arizona team who won’t underestimate them and will treat them like a Pac-12 foe.

If Jones was any indicator of his team’s mentality coming in during Wednesday’s press conference, it’s clear North Dakota is happy to be here. Miller and the Wildcats are clearly determined to roll through the Fighting Hawks and move on to Saturday.

“Don’t get caught up in not enjoying it, because it’s too special of a few days for us,” Jones said while addressing his team. “Just have fun with it, because it’s something really, really special.”

As for Miller, he has to deal with the dark cloud of not making the Final Four and with the Final Four just up the road from UA, he’s embraced the pressure. 

“At the end of the day, you are judged by what happens in March,” Miller said. “I think for us to duck that or look at that as not being the case is somewhat unrealistic. For us, it’s you have to advance.”

The road to Glendale starts Thursday night for the Wildcats. They take on North Dakota at 6:50 p.m. MST in Vivint Smart Home Arena. The game will be aired on TBS.

North Dakota Nuggets

  • Shot 48.5 percent from the field during season (18th in nation) and scored 80.1 points per game (35th in nation)
  • The Fighting Hawks play fast and ranked 34th in tempo according to kenpom.com
  • Joined the Big Sky Conference in 2012-2013
  • Head coach Brian Jones was the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year
  • Corey Baldwin was named to the All-Big Sky Conference Tournament team After shooting 68.8 percent from 3-point range
  • Quinton Hooker scored 28 points in the Big Sky Tournament championship game and was named MOP of the tournament 

Follow Christopher Deak on Twitter


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