In the span of a week Arizona has gone from a team most expected to miss the NCAA Tournament to the gate crashers of this year's dance. The twelfth seeded Wildcats are the only seed remaining seeded below fifth. They exploited their match-ups and used their strengths to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in four years. They have only trailed for a combined total of 32 seconds in the tournament.
Guard play, defense and free throw shooting are the keys to surviving and advancing in the NCAA Tournament. Nic Wise has led the way at point guard and the Cats have used a tough match-up zone defense. Wise, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill have caused match-up problems the first two games. Arizona's ability to get to the line and hit their free throws have been very important. They are shooting 78.5 percent from the line through the first two games, making 44 of 56 free throws.
Wise has been arguably the best point guard through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. He is averaging 25.0 PPG, 5.0 APG, has made all 17 of his free throws and is shooting 57 percent from the field. All of those averages are up from the regular season. His ability to handle the ball, break the press and find his teammates have been the catalyst for the Wildcats' place in the Sweet 16.
Arizona's big three of Wise, Budinger and Hill have been dominant during the first weekend. They have combined for 78 percent of Arizona's scoring. Hill is averaging 16.5 PPG and 12 RPG. He is a bit down from the regular season. Budinger has been a Clark Kellogg stat sheet stuffer. He is averaging 17.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG and 3.0 APG. He also has five steals.
Arizona has regained their defensive intensity during their first two NCAA Tournament games. Utah and Cleveland State combined to shoot 19.6 percent from three point range, shot only 39.8 percent overall and the Wildcats forced 30 turnovers. Their 1-1-3 press challenged the athletically inferior Utes. After Utah struggled to make only 8-32 from three point range, Cleveland State was an even more absymal 3-23 and that included going one for their first 17.
Another key has been the maturity of the role players. Against Utah, Kyle Fogg contributed 12 points, four rebounds and three steals. Jamelle Horne stepped up against Cleveland State with 15 points, five rebounds and three blocks.
Next up, Arizona will have its biggest test of the season. Louisville is a deep, talented and relentless team that is trying to advance to its second straight Elite Eight.
How well Wise, Budinger and Fogg handle the Louisville's press is going to be a major factor in determining Arizona's chance for a major upset. Wise has only had ten assists to eight turnovers in the first two games. Arizona's ability to take care of the ball will be extremely important. The entire team had only 23 assists to 25 turnovers through the first two games.
Wise led the offense to two of its most efficient performances of the season in the 'Cats first two NCAA games. Arizona shot 52.5 percent against Cleveland State and Utah. Arizona will have to improve its three point shooting after connecting on only 7-23 in the first two rounds.
The two positions that Arizona might have its biggest advantage Friday night will be at Center and Point Guard. Louisville has struggled to find a consistent floor leader this season. Edgar Sosa is the better offensive player, but Andre McGee is the more adept floor leader at defender. At center, Samado Samuels has flashes of greatness and has disappeared at other times.
With everything Arizona had been through, it might seem impossible for them to defeat number overall seed Louisville. Some paralells can be made with this run and Arizona's improbable 1997 NCAA Championship.
Arizona was a decided underdog against 34-1 Kansas in the Sweet 16. Virtually no one gave them any chance against future NBA players Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz and Jacque Vaughn. Arizona pulled off the shocking 85-82 upset.
Two wins later and Arizona found itself in the NCAA Championship game in Indianapolis. Rick Pitino was trying to lead Kentucky to back-to-back National Championships. Led by Miles Simon's 30 points and freshman point guard Mike Bibby Arizona took down Kentucky 84-79 in overtime. Arizona third conquest of a number seed during the 1997 NCAA Tournament earned Arizona and Lute Olson their first National Championship. Many Arizona fans will be hoping for a double dose of Deja Vu in Indianapolis on Friday night.