Arizona Basketball: Who Says the Cats Can't Be a National Title Contender?

Ezra AmacherContributor IIIFebruary 22, 2011

Arizona fans would love a rematch with Kansas in the Big Dance.
Arizona fans would love a rematch with Kansas in the Big Dance.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On Sunday night, I was furiously following the Twitter accounts of national sports writers such as Jeff Goodman of Fox Sports and Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated to see where they ranked Arizona in their new ballots.

I personally thought Arizona deserved to be ranked around 10th, following their impressive victory over Washington on Saturday. So you can imagine how my heart sank when I saw that Davis only ranked Arizona 16th and Goodman, a UA alum, ranked the Wildcats 19th, the lowest ranking for Arizona of any AP voter.

Then it hit me.

College basketball is not college football. Championships in college hoops are not determined, or at least partially determined, off of where coaches or sports writers rank teams in their weekly ballots. In basketball, there is no ridiculous formula that decides who has the right to play for the title and who doesn't.

The following scenario works in both college football and basketball: An AP voter who writes for a Northeastern newspaper probably does not keep track of what goes on in the Pac-10, MWC and WAC nearly as much as they do with the conferences closest to them.

When it comes time to submit their ballot, the writer ranks the teams closest to them, simply because they are more familiar with that team than one that plays on the other side of the country.

What separates the two sports is that in football, the East Coast-based writer could potentially be the reason why a school like TCU does not make the BCS National Championship Game.

In basketball, however, the writer from the same newspaper as the person who votes in the college football AP poll may still under-rank a team from the West. But in the end, that individual ranking will have no impact of how far the team actually goes in the NCAA Tournament.

That brings me back to Arizona's 2011 basketball team, a squad that is 23-4 and 12-2 in Pac-10 play, but for whatever reason still haven't convinced a few sports writers that they are for real.

Sean Miller, along with Derrick Williams, has done a remarkable job of bringing the Wildcats back to prominence much earlier than many people thought they would, and Arizona did crack the top-10 in the latest AP poll, even without the help of Goodman and Davis.

Being ranked in the top-10 is one thing. Winning a national championship is another.

But if there is any school that knows anything about exceeding and underachieving in the Big Dance, it's Arizona.

Under Lute Olson, the Wildcats had a notorious history of receiving high seeds each year, but then following up a generous Selection Sunday by losing in the early rounds of the tournament.

Heck, Saturday Night Live even made a point about Arizona's constant choking in March Madness by comparing Peyton Manning's inability to win a Super Bowl to Arizona's failures to ever win a national championship, with the exception of their 1997 title.

It was hard to tell whether the butt of the joke was Manning, who was in the skit, but played another character, or the Arizona basketball program.

On the other hand, Arizona was the only team in NCAA Tournament history to beat three No. 1 seeds en route to their lone national championship. Of all the Arizona teams that made the Big Dance in the Wildcats' 25-year streak that ended last season, the team that won the national championship finished fifth in the Pac-10 in 1997.

That's what makes March Madness so great and unpredictable and it once again shows that sports writers don't always know everything.

So is this year's Arizona team most like the 1993 squad that lost to No. 15 seed Santa Clara or are they more similar to the 1997 Wildcats that made Dean Smith retire on an embarrassing note, before beating heavily favored Kentucky in the national title game?

The answer to that question is obviously still unknown but it is at least reassuring to know that the only thing standing between Arizona and their final destination is themselves, not some sportswriter.