And so it begins.
The official first round of the NCAA tournament began Tuesday night with two play-in games, and will continue Wednesday with two more.
Thursday is the “real” first round, though, where half of the 64 teams will start their attempted trek to Atlanta for the Final Four.
The Arizona Wildcats, a six seed in the West Region, will start things off in Salt Lake City against 11th-seed Belmont.
Before I head to the Beehive State in the morning (yes, that’s the Utah state nickname), here are a few things going for and working against the Wildcats in their latest March Madness endeavor.
Mark Lyons: For most of the season, he’s been Arizona’s Mr. Clutch, particularly in non-conference play. Coming in, he already has seven games of NCAA tournament experience under his belt from three years playing at Xavier. In 11 games this season against NCAA tournament teams, Lyons scored 15.5 points per game and shot 82.9 percent from the free throw line.
Bench: Realistically, the Wildcats go eight deep. Occasionally, that extends to nine when head coach Sean Miller feels like giving Angelo Chol playing time. Either way, those eight players have the talent to start on most NCAA teams. Forwards Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett, along with guard Jordin Mayes, have all hit their strides as of late. Jerrett is particularly dangerous because of his 3-point stroke as a 6-foot-10 big.
Big man depth: Last year, the Arizona Wildcats had one contributing player 6-foot-7 or taller: Jesse Perry, who was 6-foot-7 on the dot. This year, the Wildcats employ four capable big men in Jerrett, Ashley, Chol and center Kaleb Tarczewski. Not many teams can trot out that type of height — or talent — in the frontcourt. It should give Arizona the rebounding advantage in most matchups. Belmont, for example, has two contributing big men at that height and as a team averages four fewer rebounds per game than Arizona.
Experience: Miller has coached in 14 NCAA tournament games — 10 at Xavier — and Lyons played in seven for the Musketeers. Solomon Hill, Mayes and Kevin Parrom were all there for the Elite Eight run in 2011. Experience in the postseason is invaluable at this time of the year and should enable the vets help the young guns (Ashley, Tarczewski and Jerrett). Belmont has never won a NCAA tournament game in its history.
Mark Lyons: For what he brings in clutch free throw shooting and pure scoring ability, Lyons gives away in poor decision-making and shoddy shot selection. In those 11 games against NCAA tournament teams this year, Lyons tallied 19 assists and 18 turnovers, and Arizona had all six of its losses in that span.
No. 1 guy: In 2011, the Wildcats had Derrick Williams. In NCAA tournament years BSM (Before Sean Miller), they had guys like Salim Stoudamire, Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas leading them deep into the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats don’t have a Williams, Gardner or Arenas. Lyons is the UA’s leading scorer, but he’s not consistent enough to rely on. In the NCAA tournament, teams can often be carried on the merits of one star, go-to guy’s performance (think Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse or Stephen Curry at Davidson). Belmont might have a guy like that — guard Ian Clark is the nation’s best 3-point shooter at 46.3 percent.
Defense: For much of the season, the Wildcats “pack line” defense was effective. In its first 14 games — all wins — Arizona allowed just 60.7 points per game. But in the last 19 games, including the Pac-12 tournament, the Wildcats allowed 66.9 points per game and lost seven times. After a loss to USC on Feb. 27, Miller called that stretch of defense the worst he’s ever coached. Most alarming is 3-point defense: The Wildcats are 276th in the nation in allowing opponents to shoot 36 percent. Belmont, on the other hand, is 18th in shooting threes at 38.6 percent.
Live or die by the three: When any team relies on the long ball to win games, it can be boom or bust. And for most of Pac-12 play, that’s just what the Wildcats have been doing. Five of Arizona’s six losses came when it shot 19 or more 3-pointers. Before Pac-12 play, it shot 38.7 percent from long range. But during, it shot just 34.5 percent on 21.2 attempts per game. The biggest culprit? Lyons, who shot 30.6 percent on six attempts per game in conference.
No. 6 Arizona against No. 11 Belmont
When: Thursday, 4:20 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake City
•This story was courtesy of the Arizona Daily Wildcat.