Arizona may have been the last team into the NCAA tournament field
Arizona may have been the last team into the NCAA tournament field.
Many critics thought the Wildcats didn't belong — and that their stay in their 25th straight NCAA tourney would be brief.
That all changed when the 12th-seeded Wildcats (21-13) beat Utah and Cleveland State to roll into the Midwest Region semifinal, where they'll confront top-seeded Louisville (30-5) on Friday night in Indianapolis.
"People were doubting us and didn't believe we should be in the tournament," forward Jordan Hill said. "We're doing the best we can to show we belong."
Arizona stumbled into the tourney with five losses in its last six games. But the Wildcats have overcome more than a poor finish; they've also rebounded from two years of off-the-court chaos, including the sudden retirement of Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson last October.
"We do have a good story," interim coach Russ Pennell said. "What I really hope comes across is that in life you get dealt some tough things. You have to make the best out of every situation. I hope the guys learn a life lesson from this because all of us go through it."
This isn't the first time the Wildcats have gone to Indianapolis as an underdog. In 1997, they reached the Final Four as a No. 4 seed, only to stun a pair of No. 1 seeds, North Carolina and Kentucky, on their way to their only national title.
This time, the Wildcats are the lowest remaining seed in the field.
Ordinarily, a 12th seed would be viewed as an underdog. But neither of Arizona's victories — over fifth-seeded Utah and 13th-seeded Cleveland State — could be characterized as upsets.
"You get seeded as a 12 seed and that kind of labels you as a Cinderella," forward Chase Budinger said. "We don't consider ourselves a Cinderella team. As a team, we feel we can play with anybody. That label doesn't come to our minds at all."
Indeed, few No. 12 seeds have three players as good as Budinger, Hill and point guard Nic Wise.
Budinger has played 79 of 80 minutes in the NCAA tourney. He's averaging 17.5 points per game and is 14-of-26 (54 percent) from the floor.
Hill got into foul trouble against Cleveland State. But he's averaging a double-double in the first two rounds — 16.5 points and 11 rebounds — and is playing with his usual exuberance.
Wise, meanwhile, has become a scoring machine. After dropping 29 points on Utah in the first round, he scored 21 against Cleveland State.
Wise is 15-for-22 from the floor (68 percent) in the first two rounds.
"(Wise) is playing at his top level and leading our team right now," Budinger said. "Without him I don't think we'd be here."
Many didn't think the Wildcats would be here — and that included some in the Arizona athletic department. When Arizona's red-and-blue block "A" flashed on TV screens during the NCAA tourney selection show, the McKale Center was filled with joyful shouts.
At the time, it seemed as if extending the nation's longest active NCAA tourney string was a victory. But the Wildcats clearly weren't satisfied to qualify and Pennell said he doesn't expect his players to change their approach on Friday night.
"The thing I like about these guys is that I don't sense they are satisfied," he said. "It's not like they feel that we can put on our Sweet 16 T-shirt and go on about our life."
The Wildcats will face a far tougher opponent in the third round, although the Cardinals have sputtered at times.
Louisville led 16th-seeded Morehead State by only two points at halftime before pulling away for a 74-54 victory. In the second round, the Cardinals held off Siena 79-72 for their 12th straight victory.
Louisville figures to have most of the fan support in Indianapolis, which is about 115 miles away.
"You're going to see a sea of red shirts (at Lucas Oil Stadium)," Pennell said. "I'll just tell our guys it's Arizona red."