The Arizona men’s basketball non-conference schedule was released earlier today and boy is it underwhelming. The ‘Cats start the season off with two boring exhibition games, which are whatever, but then open the season against the always deadly To-Be-Determined. After that, Miller’s crew hosts Cal Poly and UTEP.
I’ll give you a second to recover from that intense pair of games. Here’s a Gronk .Gif:
The ‘Cats travel to Maui for the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, but if learning fractions has taught me anything, the two ‘Maui’s cancel out and it’s really just called the Jim Invitational. That’ll be Arizona’s only chance at a decent matchup all non-conference and possibly even all season, depending on how good UCLA turns out to be. The teams heading to Maui are as follows: Arizona, Auburn, Duke, Gonzaga, Illinois, Iowa State, San Diego State, and Xavier.
The Jim Invitational poses several intriguing matchups. Let’s break this down in alphabetical order, starting with Auburn:
Auburn is interesting because it gives Arizona the opportunity to play both Alabama schools, as the ‘Cats head to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama on December 9th. Should Arizona beat both of them, Gus Malzahn and Nick Saban must partake in a to-the-death bare knuckle cage match (Editor’s note: He’s right you know.), with the winner becoming Arizona’s new head football coach. Should Arizona drop both, they’ll have to sacrifice RichRod, and rancid Kay Ivey would have to eat his heart. So really, it’s just a win-win.
Arizona’s matchup with Duke would be fun because, well shit, it’s Duke. Remember the last two times the ‘Cats took on the Blue Devils?
Obligatory Derrick Williams Highlight Reel:
Good things happen when Arizona plays Duke. The previous four times the ‘Cats played the Blue Devils, they went to the Elite Eight and beyond that year. The last four years were 2013, 2011, 2001, and 1997. Those were four fun years. Especially 1997. When Arizona has played Duke, that same season they’ve won the national championship, lost in the national championship, went to the Elite Eight twice, Sweet Sixteen twice, and the round of 32 once. Only one year in which the ‘Cats played Duke did Arizona fail to make it to the tournament, and that was in 1961. Of the nine times that Arizona played Duke, only two of those games have come in the tournament — a loss in the national championship and a Sweet Sixteen victory. Not to infer causation, but there’s a definite correlation between Arizona playing Duke and not laying a fucking egg in the first weekend of the tournament.
Following Duke is Gonzaga. I hope that Arizona plays Gonzaga and it’s a fan-freaking-tastic game that revives that rivalry. Arizona and Gonzaga are two of the four best men’s college basketball programs on the west coast.
Why Illinois would be fun:
Watch that video. Watch every second, feel all the feels, cry out in pain, and then tell me that you don’t wanna beat the Fightin’ Illini — whose name is pretty racist, deriving from a group of Native American tribes from the Illinois area, and were still using Chief Illiniwek as their mascot at the time of the comeback — by 30 every day of the week.
Iowa State: meh?
San Diego State: It’s fun having this regional rivalry. They’re always pretty good and at least on the bubble for March. It would make sense to travel to San Diego State every year, rather than playing them in Hawaii tho. San Diego is closer than Vegas for Los Angeles area alumni and, if the game’s in November, then fans would go to both. Furthermore, they’re a good team and generally defend their home court, so it’d fare well with AP voters.
Xavier: Those bastards knocked Lauri Markannen out of the tournament, but to be fair, outcoached Miller. Revenge anyone?
After Maui, the ‘Cats host several boring home games destined for blow outs and then the annual overhyping of this team, myself included. However, Arizona will travel to UCONN and Alabama, but neither team will be all too great this season.
Why I think this will be a factor in Arizona’s lackluster March performance this season
Great, I’ve wasted 700+ words on why Arizona should play Duke every year and why I think the state of Alabama is a shitshow. Now to my point.
Miller needs to look at his previous success and identify constants from each season. One constant from each season has been playing a top 10 team, and not in the sense that ASU was ranked third in the country when the ‘Cats kicked the winning out of them, but a true top 10 team. Miller’s taken Zona to the Elite Eight in 2011, 2013 and 2014. In 2011, Arizona played then No. 6 Kansas at the Las Vegas Invitational in the non-conference. They lost that game but that’s beside the point. The point is that the game was even played. The point is furthered by the fact that Arizona beat Duke in the Sweet Sixteen that year. In 2013, they played then No. 6 Duke; reference one of the videos embedded above. That game kicked ass. In 2014, Arizona hosted then No. 9 Gonzaga and also played Utah when they were ranked eighth, but that team still gained the experience they needed the year prior in that Duke game.
Two of those experiences simply came because the ‘Cats were lucky enough to get Duke and Kansas non-conference tournament draws. That’s it. The lack of good opposition in the non-conference is truly a sign of weakness of Miller’s and, frankly, is kinda embarrassing.
Now, let’s look at Miller’s two first round exits, 2015 and 2017. In 2015, Arizona hosted Gonzaga, which was another amazing game (see above), but that team wasn’t truly elite. They dropped out of the AP Poll by Week 6. And then last year. Oooh last year. I don’t need to rehash the Battle for Atlantis, but Allonzo Trier’s selfishness and Lorenzo Romar’s awful coaching — crap I’m rehashing it — it all cost Arizona a shot at Villanova, and weren’t those Wildcats mildly successful? And the only other top 10 team on Arizona’s non-conference schedule was Texas A&M, who was similar to the 2015 Gonzaga squad that Arizona faced — out of the AP Poll only weeks later.
The Wildcats are a really immature team. That’s not to knock them, but all their experience either graduated or went undrafted. And don’t conflate age with maturity either, at least not in the ‘big game’ sense. Talented kids don’t win big games on the first try. It takes an ability to tune out the noise, the fanfare, the hoopla, and that takes experience playing in such games. There are very few players on this team with big game experience. Chase Jeter is one, but he’s a big man, and Miller has already said that he’s focusing his offense on his wings. Emmanuel Akot is another, but Akot is incredibly soft spoken, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he won’t be a very vocal leader. Dylan Smith should play a role in leading the team through tough situations and big games, as well as Brandon Randolph.
I can’t find the exact quote, but I remember UMBC head coach Ryan Odom saying something noteworthy after the ‘Cats trounced his team by 30. He said something along the lines of — and I’m paraphrasing — We wanted to know what it’d be like to play against a 1 seed, because if we’re a 16 seed, we want to be ready.
And weren’t they good and ready for a 1 seed? That just makes sense.
The players transferring in have experience playing college basketball, but not the big-game Arizona college basketball that the rest have. The non-conference schedule is where they need to gain that experience.
I don’t know whether it’s Sean Miller who’s scheduling a soft non-conference schedule, whether it’s the athletic department, whether other schools won’t schedule the ‘Cats, or some kind of combination, but it’s hurting the Wildcats in March. And it’s bad for college basketball, because who would say no to marquee matchups in November?
This was a very negative piece. Let’s end on a positive note.
THERE ARE ONLY 85 DAYS UNTIL THE RED AND BLUE GAME TIPS OFF AS OF FRIDAY JULY 20TH.