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ESPN’s Medcalf: Arizona’s Final Four chances could be undone by youth

Arizona's Lauri Markkanen leaps at the half-court line to prevent a call of over and back during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Washington on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Arizona Wildcats have not been to a Final Four since 2001, and when this season started, few expected the 2017 to be the year that ended the drought.

But with one regular season game in Tempe against the Sun Devils remaining, Arizona is 26-4 overall, 15-2 in the Pac-12 and ranked seventh in the nation.

Nowadays, there are some who think if the Cats do not reach the Final Four, which just so happens to be in Glendale this year, then the season will be a disappointment.

Of course, as anyone in Tucson can tell you, getting to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend is incredibly difficult. Arizona came close in 2005, 2011, 2014 and 2015, only to fall painfully short in the Elite 8 each time.

So will this season be the one that ends with the Wildcats cutting down the nets? ESPN’s Myron Medcalf is not saying it won’t be, though in a piece published Tuesday, he presented reasons why each of the top-25 teams in the country will not be making it to the Final Four.

For Arizona, it comes down to youth.

Lauri Markkanen’s acceleration into the NBA lottery conversation made sense after the 7-footer displayed a rare inside-outside touch. But the freshman has connected on just 5 of 26 3-point attempts in his last eight games. His funk is a great reminder of coach Sean Miller’s complex task. Five of his top seven scorers are underclassmen. Yeah, some young teams have gone far. But many flop long before the Final Four.

Markkanen is Arizona’s second-leading scorer with 15.4 points per game, and his ability to stretch the floor is a big reason for why the Wildcats have the record they do. But as noted, the forward has struggled with his shot of late, and it’s not unfair to feel like his team’s chances in March are directly correlated to his making three-point shots.

Besides Markkanen, Arizona has relied heavily on Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons, who are also freshmen. Each has played well at times, but they have also predictably struggled in spurts.

The Wildcats’ chances of winning it all this year were improved when sophomore guard Allonzo Trier was ruled eligible to play again after a 19-game suspension, and he seems to be hitting his stride with outputs of 21, 25 and 28 points in the team’s last three games against Washington, USC and UCLA.

However, as well as he is playing and could play in the NCAA Tournament, odds are the Wildcats will only go as far as their youngest players can take them.

As of now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Wildcats as a 3 seed in the Midwest region, while CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm lists them as a 2 seed in the same region.

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