How does everyone feel about the NIT?
Arizona’s streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, held together by string and bubble gum by interim head coaches in the past two seasons, finally snapped Thursday Thursday afternoon at 25 years.
UCLA eliminated the Wildcats 75-69 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
First-year coach Sean Miller coaxed a 16-15 record out of his young team, getting a winning record with victories in its final three games of the regular season. That late surge allowed the Wildcats to be a viable candidate for the NIT, which unofficially does not invite teams with sub-.500 records.
The first round of the 32-team NIT will be held Tuesday and Wednesday at on-campus sites.
The NIT likely will include such traditional powers as North Carolina, UConn and even Memphis, which is coached by former Arizona player and assistant coach Josh Pastner. The Tigers lost Thursday to Houston in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament.
“It’s about doing the best we can do, and we would be honored to be in the NIT,” UA assistant coach James Whitford said on the KCUB 1290-AM postgame show.
“There is going to some really good teams in it. UConn is going to be in it. North Carolina is going to be in it. There are going to be some teams you are traditionally used to seeing in the NCAAs — Arizona, obviously being one of them — that aren’t going to be there.
“That tournament is a very good tournament … and we hope to be a part of it.”
Arizona needed to win the Pac-10 tournament to grab the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Arizona’s streak was two off the all-time record, set by North Carolina. The new longest streak belongs to Kansas, which will be making its 21st consecutive appearance next week.
Arizona has been a second-half team lately and will need to be again after trailing UCLA 37-33 at halftime of a Pac-10 quarterfinal at Staples Center.
The Wildcats allowed far too many easy baskets to the Bruins, and UCLA freshman post player Reeves Nelson schooled any of three UA defenders — Derrick Williams, Kyryl Natyazhko and Alex Jacobson.
Arizona won its final three games of the regular season despite trailing at halftime in each of those games.
UCLA shot 63 percent in the first half — and Nelson had 12 points and six rebounds — but the Bruins couldn’t shake the Wildcats.
“You know, UCLA is really good on offense; I don’t think they get enough credit,” UA coach Sean Miller told Fox Sports Net at halftime. “With Reeves Nelson playing, he really gives them an inside presence and he’s hurt us, obviously. We have not had an answer for his physicality.”
Nelson had missed the previous four games because of any eye injury. For Arizona, forward Kevin Parrom, who had missed four games because of a foot injury, played and moved well i the first half.
In beating UCLA last week, Arizona held the Bruins to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half. In a double-overtime win over USC on Saturday, the Wildcats held the Trojans to 31.7 percent shooting after halftime.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said he considers his Wildcats and UCLA to be evenly matched, with the betting line favoring the Bruins by one point.
Arizona won both regular season meetings, including a 78-73 victory in Tucson a week ago. It was a two-point game with 17 seconds left.
That was part of a regular-season three-game winning streak in which Arizona won all three games after trailing at halftime. The Cats were down 14 to UCLA in the second half.
The ensuing confidence from those games is the best thing Arizona could have hoped for. Miller said, “We’re not fighting ourselves.”
“It’s not to where we have nothing to play for, we’re not playing well, we’re beaten down, we have no energy. To me, we’re the furthest thing from that type of team. I don’t know if that means we’re going to win or not. But we’ll see where that goes from there.”
Meanwhile, UCLA claims it is optimistic, too.
Arizona starts two freshmen — Freshman All-American forward Derrick Williams and forward Solomon Hill — and could play as many as five in this afternoon’s Pac-10 quarterfinal against the Bruins at Staples Center.
If healthy big man Reeves Nelson is back in the starting lineup for UCLA, the Bruins also will start two freshmen (forward Tyler Honeycutt being the other).
Miller admitted his young players could be affected by the pressure of the tournament setting in an NBA arena.
“We have a lot of freshman with great experience, but this is a first,” he said. “This is different.”
Arizona has won three in a row against the Bruins, dating to last season. Before that, UCLA had won eight in a row in the series.
Check back later for more on the Arizona-UCLA game, which start a little after 1 p.m. Tucson time.