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Nine lives? Try 25 Cats hope to ‘validate’ pick after keeping streak alive

Citizen Staff Writer
NO. 12 UA VS. NO. 5 UTAH, 4:10 P.M. FRIDAY; TV: CBS



The Masters of March have found a way to get back into the NCAA Tournament.

Arizona will dance – literally – to Miami to play No. 5 seed Utah at 4:10 p.m. Friday. The Wildcats kept their consecutive NCAA tourney streak alive at 25 by sneaking into the Midwest Region as a No. 12 seed.

“We were surprised,” said UA interim coach Russ Pennell, who gathered with his team before practice Sunday to watch the pairing at McKale Center. “I was looking down when the (announcement) came up, and the guys just went crazy.

“They were flying around the room, jumping on chairs and tables. The buzz was so loud and incredible that it took about five minutes for me to find out who we were playing, where and when we were playing. I honestly didn’t know. I knew we were in by their response.”

UA and Wisconsin were the lowest-seeded at-large teams at No. 12, but the wait was short. Arizona-Utah was the third game announced, and Pennell joked that he couldn’t believe a team could celebrate that long.

“I must have hugged the same guy five times,” he said. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

A season’s worth of ups and downs had culminated with keeping alive the nation’s longest current NCAA streak – from Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson’s sudden retirement to unfathomable losses (Alabama-Birmingham, Stanford) to big wins (Gonzaga, Kansas).

“The moment the kids saw (their name) it was like everything they’ve gone through was worth it,” Pennell said

Many bracket experts predicted the Wildcats would not earn a bid, especially after USC earned a berth by winning the Pac-10 Tournament on Saturday.

“I told you we’d get in,” UA senior guard David Bagga said at McKale Center after hearing the news.

UA is two years from tying North Carolina’s NCAA record of 27 straight appearances from 1975-2001.

“There was no question in my mind that we were good enough to be in the tournament,” Pennell said. “I never thought that. I thought we were.”

Pennell said what had concerned him was how some of the conference tournaments played out, with Mississippi State beating Tennessee and USC beating Arizona State on Saturday.

“I thought we might get left out,” he said.

Even Olson had doubts. On Sunday night, he told the Citizen that he “was thrilled they made it.”

“It surprised me, but like I said on Saturday in Los Angeles, you never know; anything can happen. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best. The best happened.”

Pennell said he’s aware UA sputtered down the stretch, giving others some doubt in just how good his team is.

“We hope to validate our being picked,” Pennell said. “We not just happy to be here. We’d like to stay a while if we can.”

Right after UA’s team meeting UA athletic director Jim Livengood spoke to the team and later had a quick chat with associate head coach Mike Dunlap congratulating him on the bid. Livengood had been in his office viewing the announcement.

“When I saw the block A – when it first came up – it was an absolute tribute to these kids and coaches,” he said. “It also goes to show you, don’t count things out.”

Mid-major teams such as San Diego State, Creighton and Saint Mary’s were left out the tournament.

“We tried to send the message that it’s your entire body of work,” said Mike Slive, the NCAA Committee chairman and SEC commissioner.

San Diego State (35), Creighton (40) and Saint Mary’s (48) had higher Rating Percentage Index rankings than Arizona (63), but Slive said “RPI is one factor among a myriad of factors.”

He pointed out that UA had quality nonconference wins over Kansas, Gonzaga, UCLA, Washington and USC – and beat San Diego State.

“In the final analysis, the fact that they (Wildcats) were so successful against good teams, the committee thought they deserved to be in the tournament,” Slive said.

He said: “We were aware (UA) lost down the stretch, going 7-5 in last 12 (and 1-5 in the last six), but the end result after a lot of elaboration is that this team had a very strong resume with that number of wins. Six wins in the top 50.”

Arizona’s selection in the Midwest Region means the Pac-10 could have six teams in the tournament.

“Those guys (the NCAA Committee) do such a good job of analyzing everything and making sure it’s not just about the number,” Livengood said about wins and losses.

It is the Wildcats’ lowest seed since Olson began taking them to the NCAA Tournament in 1985. UA had a No. 10 seed last year, losing to West Virginia in the first round.

CBS announcers were surprised, as probably a lot of people in Tucson were, when the Wildcats’ name was called early for the Midwest Region.

Livengood congratulated the team.

“They’re excited,” he said. “It’s one thing when you wait around for the whole bracket to come out, but it came out right away. You saw that block A.”

ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said he was surprised Arizona received a bid over Saint Mary’s.

“Santa Claus came early for Arizona,” Vitale quipped.

But apparently, Vitale feels UA has what it takes to make it to the round of 32. He predicted UA will beat Utah on Friday.

Welcome to March Madness.


Year Advanced Seed Record

1985 1st round 10 21-10

1986 1st round 9 23-9

1987 1st round 10 18-12

1988 Final Four 1 35-3

1989 Sweet 16 1 29-4

1990 2nd round 2 25-7

1991 Sweet 16 2 28-7

1992 1st round 3 24-7

1993 1st round 2 24-4

1994 Final Four 2 29-6

1995 1st round 5 24-7

1996 Sweet 16 3 27-6

1997 Champion 4 25-9

1998 Elite Eight 1 30-5

1999 1st round 4 22-7

2000 2nd round 1 27-7

2001 Runner-up 2 28-8

2002 Sweet 16 3 24-10

2003 Elite Eight 1 28-4

2004 1st round 9 20-10

2005 Elite Eight 3 30-7

2006 2nd round 8 20-13

2007 1st round 8 20-11

2008 1st round 10 19-15

2009 ??? 12 19-13

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