TUCSON - For Arizona, the Big Easy could be impossible. The eighth-seeded Wildcats were sent into their third 8-9 NCAA tournament bracket in the past four years Sunday, with a first-round game Friday in New Orleans against No. 9 Purdue that will determine who likely will play defending national champion Florida in the second round of the Midwest Regional on Sunday.
Arizona has landed in the 8- 9 game three times previously in the Lute Olson era, including last season and 2004, ending its season during the first weekend each time. They lost to No. 8 Seton Hall in 2004, failing to reach a second-round date with top-seeded Duke, and were eliminated last season by top-seeded Villanova in the second round.
UA coach Lute Olson expected to avoid it this time, saying he believed the Wildcats earned a No. 7 seed for their 23rd straight NCAA tournament appearance, but blamed his team’s top-rated schedule for dragging them down.
UA is 20-10 after losing to Oregon 69-50 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament.
“If we had played some dogs, we’d probably have been a 7,” Olson said.
“The word is that you need to schedule really tough games and that’s going to help you. I’m just not sure that people remember how tough that schedule was.”
But Olson won’t change his philosophy, having already assembled what will be one of the nation’s toughest schedules again next season, and the selection committee isn’t budging, either.
Olson said he understood how difficult the selection committee’s job is, knowing the work that Arizona athletic directors Cedric Dempsey and Jim Livengood have done on it, and it is clear that the Wildcats posed a difficult challenge.
Arizona played the best schedule in the country, but it had only one win (Feb. 10 at Oregon) over a team with a Top 25 RPI after Dec. 20, and it was blown out by North Carolina, UCLA and Oregon over the past six weeks. The Wildcats have an RPI of 14 yet were just 5-9 against Top 50 RPI teams.
“We looked at Arizona very, very carefully,” said Princeton AD Gary Walters, the selection committee chair.
“I think one of the significant things they did is play a very rigorous schedule. They had their ups and downs against a rigorous schedule. We have an enormous respect for the University of Arizona, but we think they’re seeded in the appropriate area.”
If there was a silver lining for Olson, it was that UA won’t have to face a local favorite.
Over the past three seasons, UA has been assigned to face Duke in the 2004 second round at Raleigh, N.C. (if it had beaten Seton Hall), Illinois at Chicago in the 2005 Elite Eight and Villanova at Philadelphia in the second round last season.
“Playing Florida in the second game — if we can get past Purdue — won’t be like playing Villanova 15 miles from campus or Illinois in Chicago with 19,000 people rooting for them,” Olson said. “Initially, I heard we’d be playing Xavier in Lexington (Ky.) and then having a very difficult second draw with Ohio State. So I’m happier about being in New Orleans than playing people in their backyards like we’ve had to do the past couple of years.”
Arizona also should be prepared for Purdue’s style of play, Olson said.
Although the Boilermakers are the kind of tough half-court team the Big Ten is known for, the Wildcats have faced physical, slow-paced opponents such as Washington State, USC and Arizona State this season. Their nonconference schedule included hard-nosed teams from Louisville and Illinois, plus a Princeton-style opponent in Samford.