March 26, 2009

 

By Anthony Oliva III
NCAA.com

Apparently the selection committee got it right.

Not only have the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament gone almost completely to form with most of the top seeds advancing, but of the only two teams that made it to Sweet Sixteen seeded higher than fourth, one of them, Arizona, is a team which the selection committee presumably chose over a number of similarly qualified teams for one of the Tournament's last at-large berths.

And now, on the heels of two wins versus No. 5 seed Utah and No. 13 seed Cleveland State, the Wildcats will face the Tournament's overall No. 1 seed Louisville Friday night in Indianapolis. in the most unlikely of Sweet Sixteen matchups.

Arizona, because of its seed, will be anointed this year's Cinderella team but it's hard to call the Wildcats, which have been to four Final Fours, a dozen Sweet Sixteens since 1988 and hail from one the nation's top conferences, a Cinderella.

Not only does Arizona have a storied history, but when you look at its lineup, which includes three of the nation's best players at their respective positions, it's even harder to think of the Wildcats in the same light as Cinderellas like Davidson last year or George Mason in 2006.

Arizona's big three consists of point guard Nic Wise, forward Chase Budinger and forward Jordan Hill. The trio - each with a specific skill - gives the Wildcats a chance to compete with anyone in the country.

Never was that more evident than in the first round against Mountain West Conference co-champs Utah. The trio combined for 66 points in Arizona's 84-71 upset.

"We feel talent wise we are one of the better teams in the Tournament," Wise said after the Utah game. "But we like being underdogs."

The win against Utah alone vindicated Arizona's at-large bid but in the second game against Cleveland State the Wildcats put an exclamation point on it. And once again, the big three, all juniors, stepped up.

Despite all three being in some measure of foul trouble against a Cleveland State team that two days prior provided the biggest shocker of the Tournament so far by thoroughly defeating No. 4 seed Wake Forest, Wise, Budinger and Hill all scored over 15 points in a 71-57 victory in which they led throughout.

All three have the ability to take over a game and scouts - as well as opponents - have noticed.

NBA scouts are raving about Hill who is tremendously athletic for his 6-foot-10 frame and there is talk about him being at least a potential top-10 pick in the draft. His numbers back up that kind of speculation as he averaged over 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds per game this year.

Budinger opted out of the NBA draft last year and has certainly shown why he is considered one of the top small forwards in the country. He was a standout volleyball player in high school and his leaping ability is on display as he averages over six rebounds a game while also scoring nearly 18 points a night.

Wise, at 5-foot-10, can sometimes be overshadowed by his hyped teammates, but he has been as important to the Wildcats as anyone else. The Houston native scored 29 points in round one and had 21 points and eight assists in round two of the Tournament. And, simply put, he is as quick as they come in the college game.

"Too fast," Budinger said when asked how fast Wise actually is.  "I hate guarding him in practice because he just goes right by you, and he's so low to the ground with the ball, you can't even get in front of him."  

As for opponents, it only takes one chance for Wise to make an impression.

"He's a very quick point guard, very shifty with the ball," said Cleveland State guard Norris Cole who had the matchup against Wise. "I don't know how people rate him or anything, but from all the guards that I've checked this year, he's definitely one of the more difficult guards."

And when these three stars are playing like they have in the Tournament, Arizona could be a difficult out the rest of the way, although Arizona just getting to Indianapolis is a bit of a surprise - at least to outsiders

"You know, making it to the Sweet Sixteen, it feels great for us," Budinger said. "We have the team to do it, and we're showing that we're a lot better than what people thought of us."

But still it's hard to think of Arizona as a Cinderella. At one point this year the Wildcats rattled off seven straight wins and looked like a lock for the Tournament. They then lost five of their last six, a stretch that put their NCAA Tournament life in jeopardy.

What seemingly won over the committee is Arizona's quality wins. During the year it beat two teams still in the Tournament in Gonzaga and Kansas and three teams that won a first round NCAA Tournament game in Washington, UCLA and USC.

Its matchup Friday with Big East regular season and Tournament champs Louisville will not be an easy one, as the Cardinal will counter with a big three of their own.

Louisville's Terrance Williams is coming off a 24-point, 15-rebound performance against Siena and will be matched up against Budinger. Earl Clark, at 6-foot-9, 225 pounds, will be a tough matchup for the Wildcats in the front court and 6-foot-9, 260-pound Samardo Samuels will be assigned to stop Hill.

"We knew we could be here all along," Wise said. "Coach (Russ) Pennell, Coach Dewey (Pennell), they were talking in their coaching staff meeting, and he told them that we would be in the Sweet Sixteen, and that was five weeks ago.  The locker room out there in the ASU game after our loss, I told my team I wanted to be in the National Championship game.  That's the way we're playing.  We know we can be here and we have the talent to do it. 

"We're proving it now, and we're peaking at the right time."