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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Starting over

    UA guard Jawann McClellan speaks, while forward Chase Budinger and guard Jerryd Bayless look on, at a press conference during Wednesdays Media Day in the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.
    UA guard Jawann McClellan speaks, while forward Chase Budinger and guard Jerryd Bayless look on, at a press conference during Wednesday’s Media Day in the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.

    No. 10 Arizona vs. No. 7 West Virginia

    WASHINGTON – A No. 24 Arizona jersey graces the cover of the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament media guide, and it has nothing to do with being the digits Fendi Onobun wears.

    The UA program isn’t shy about showing off the fact that the Wildcats have reached an active record 24 straight NCAA Tournaments, but No. 10 seed Arizona enters Thursday’s first round-game at about 6:40 p.m. against West Virginia in rare underdog territory, as the team has not received a double-digit seed in 21 years.

    That’s the result of a tumultuous season on and off the court that included the Lute Olson leave of absence drama and injuries to three key players that left an already depth-challenged roster vulnerable against a tough Pacific 10 Conference slate.

    “”It’s been tough because we haven’t had a lot of key parts the whole season,”” said UA guard Jerryd Bayless. “”Right now I feel like we have everybody together and everybody’s healthy, and I think we’ll make a run.””

    Bayless pointed out the team went 16-6 when at full strength, which the team has now been for the past two weeks since the return of guard Nic Wise and forward Bret Brielmaier.

    A 3-8 record in games missed by Wise and Bayless put the team on the bubble, but now that they’re in UA forward Jordan Hill said the players have been talking amongst themselves that an Arizona team like this that has “”ridiculous”” talent could do some damage in the Big Dance.

    “”Before we found out if we were going to be in the NCAA Tournament or not everybody was a little scared, a little tense,”” Hill said. “”Now since we’re here I guess the weight is off our shoulders now, so now it’s time to get down to business.””

    Added UA guard Jawann McClellan: “”Of course we want to make noise in the NCAA Tournament. We’re just not here to play one game and be done. We’re not satisfied to make it to the Tournament. We’re very confident. Hopefully we can go out there and get it done.””

    Although the team has safely extended the school’s proud NCAA Tournament streak, a win over the Mountaineers would also make it 21 straight years an Arizona team has won at least 20 games, which is also the nation’s longest active streak.

    The last UA team not to win 20 games doubled as the last squad to enter the Tournament with a No. 10 seed, the 1987 team. However, Arizona has won exactly 20 games in three of the last four seasons, needing a win in the 2006 NCAA Tournament to reach that mark.

    “”It would mean a lot of course, but the important thing is if we win 20 games we’re moving on to the next round,”” McClellan said. “”That’s the most important thing, moving on to the next round.””

    In winning 19 games and losing 14, the Wildcats played a tough nonconference schedule that helped their overall strength of schedule rank No. 2 nationally. Arizona played 16 games against eventual NCAA Tournament teams, including a fast contest against Memphis and a slow game against Nevada-Las Vegas and everything in between.

    “”We did have a lot of noncoference games against various different teams, and I think that’s going to help us in the end,”” said UA forward Chase Budinger. “”We’re able to match up against every type of style. We’re just going to come in tomorrow, really just focus in on their style.””

    Arizona has struggled some against teams that space the floor like the Mountaineers, getting swept by a similar team in Oregon that shot 57.0 percent in its two victories.

    Overall defensively the Wildcats allow opponents to shoot 43.9 percent from the field, not a great number from a Kevin O’Neill-coached defense.

    O’Neill said the stats are a bit deceiving because of how tough a schedule his team played, adding the team’s defense is starting to get better with the return of Wise, who averages a team-high 2.04 steals per game, second in the Pacific 10 Conference.

    “”I think we’ve improved over the year,”” O’Neill said. “”And now with Nic back we’re an average to a little bit above average defensive team. We’re not a good defensive team by any stretch yet, but eventually if your guys keep playing man they’ll get there.””

    None of those numbers matter now, as every team starts 0-0 in the Tournament.

    To get there the Wildcats have battled through a decade’s worth of adversity, but now that they’re finally injury-free, a good stretch of games would make everybody forget about the tumultuous regular season.

    “”For us as a team, we’ve just got to come in here, play hard and not think about the past games or anything like that,”” Budinger said. “”It’s pretty much all about getting hot.””


    Breakdown
    Tale of the Tape:
    No. 10 Arizona vs. No. 7 West Virginia

    Guards

    Jerryd Bayless and Nic Wise have too much quickness for their Mountaineer counterparts to handle, but the Wildcats better be sure to get in the airspace of West Virginia’s shooters.

    Advantage: Arizona

    Forwards/Center

    Joe Alexander has been playing out of his mind of late, averaging nearly 30 points per contest in five March games before struggling a bit against Georgetown in the Big East semis. The Wildcats’ ability to contain him looms as one of the biggest keys of the game.

    Advantage: West Virginia

    Intangibles

    The Wildcats extended their active streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to 24, but there’s still one more game to be won to extend their active streak of consecutive 20-win seasons currently standing at 20, a run Jawann McClellan has said he wants no part in ending.

    Advantage: Arizona

    Prediction

    At full strength the Wildcats have been one of the better teams in the country, and they’ve played the type of schedule that won’t let anything faze them. If they can prevent Alexander from going wild and stay home with West Virginia’s shooters, Arizona has the talent to pull this minor upset.

    Arizona 74, West Virginia 68

    – compiled by Michael Schwartz


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