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Streak continues UA in, but just barely

Citizen Staff Writer



Twenty-five years. A silver anniversary. Appropriate, because this streak – this Arizona basketball run of 25 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances – is all about silver.

The Silver Fox.

Otherwise known as Lute Olson.

Last year’s brief appearance in the Big Dance goes on the job history of interim coach Kevin O’Neill, and this year’s at-large bid gets goes next to the name of interim Russ Pennell, but both postseason appearances were orchestrated by the now-retired Olson.

Although Olson hasn’t coached a game in two years now, it was the long arm of the Lute that made both of these NCAA Tournament appearances possible, thanks to his never-flinching desire to schedule the best teams in the country.

The players did their part by winning just enough games, but the key factor each time was that the selection committee fell in love with Arizona’s big victories and strength of schedule.

“I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” Pennell said Sunday after the Wildcats were selected as a 12th seed with a 19-13 record, edging teams with better overall records.

“I think that is what gave us an edge over somebody like, say, Penn State. I think that’s a testament to Arizona and to what Coach Olson always did, which was play the best competition in the nonconference season.”

Olson and Pennell talked after Sunday’s bracket announcement.

“I kiddingly said, ‘The streak is somebody else’s problem now,’” Pennell said. “He said, ‘Congratulations on that one.’ One of the things I told Coach O was that you built a program that is even able to endure a couple of years after you’re gone.”

That’s because of the scheduling.

(And the fact that Olson was on watch when Arizona brought on Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise.)

But if we have learned anything about Bracketology in the past two seasons it is this: The selection committee values a team’s entire “body of work” – an oft-repeated phrase this time of year – and quality victories much more than the general public does.

Many were fretting last season that Arizona might not get into the field of 65, but the Wildcats were protected by a strength of schedule that was ranked the toughest in the nation after the regular season. Turns out, Arizona was comfortably into the tournament as a 10th seed.

This year, most thought the Wildcats were on the wrong side of the bubble.

Once again, the schedule, while not as difficult as last season, made the difference when the committee sorted Arizona against Saint Mary’s, Creighton, San Diego State, Penn State, Auburn and others.

“The tough schedule certainly had something to do with it,” Olson told the Tucson Citizen on Sunday night.

“When I called Russ, he said the guys were ecstatic. They were as thrilled as thrilled could be. I couldn’t be happier for them.”

Not everyone in the punditry world was happy.

ESPN analyst/cheerleader Dick Vitale wasn’t too happy as he made an on-air case (or tried to) for Saint Mary’s, which was 26-6, losing four of those games when star guard Patty Mills was injured.

“I think Santa Claus came early for them,” Vitale said of the Wildcats.

But the Wildcats separated themselves from Saint Mary’s – and everybody else – because they have wins over No. 3 seed Kansas, No. 4 seed Washington and No. 4 seed Gonzaga, among others.

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

“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 added, pointing to Arizona’s six victories against top 50 teams.

“The end result after a lot of deliberation is that this team had a very strong résumé with that number of wins.”

Schedule good teams, and beat some of them. That’s the Arizona way. That has been the program’s saving grace in the past couple of seasons.

Arizona might have been the last team in the field this year, but it’s in.

Twenty-five blessed years in a row.

Let’s leave with the words of ex-Cat Eugene Edgerson from last year.

“Arizona not in the NCAAs? That would be like eating Easter Bunny stew,” Edgerson said.

“It’s just not right. It’s just not supposed to happen.”

With a little continued help from the Silver Fox, it didn’t happen this year, either.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com


Who: No. 12 Arizona (19-13) vs. No. 5 Utah (24-9), Midwest Regional

When: 4:10 p.m. Friday

Where: Miami+

TV: CBS. Radio: 1290-AM

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