Can the Wildcats win the NCAA Tournament? Questions for Arizona, Part I

Mar 17, 2022, 8:40 AM

Dalen Terry #4 of the Arizona Wildcats holds up a ceremonial NCAA tournament ticket as the team cel...

Dalen Terry #4 of the Arizona Wildcats holds up a ceremonial NCAA tournament ticket as the team celebrates their 84-76 victory over the UCLA Bruins to win the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament championship game at T-Mobile Arena on March 12, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Arizona Wildcats are going into the NCAA Tournament with three or fewer losses for just the third time in nearly 30 years.

For a program rich with success, Tommy Lloyd’s first year in charge has produced one of the school’s best teams ever heading into the big dance.

With all the intrigue surrounding the Wildcats’ chances to win it all, editors Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman preview Arizona’s chances in the NCAA Tournament by running through six big questions.

Here are the first three in Part I.

How do you feel about this team’s chances to make their first Final Four since the Lute Olson era?

Kellan Olson: Outstanding, thank you for asking!

This team has no holes. It is extremely deep in terms of talent. When Kerr Kriisa is healthy, Arizona has eight guys that can be its best player on any given night. That includes reserves like Oumar Ballo, Pelle Larsson and Justin Kier, who have gotten even better in-season — particularly in the last month for Larsson and Kier. Its entire starting five of Kriisa, Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry, Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko should have made the All-Pac 12 teams. Three of them did.

Stylistically, it’s even more impressive.

Kriisa, Mathurin, Terry and Tubelis are the playmaking source of the best passing team in the country. Larsson and Kier aren’t too shabby off the bounce, either. Ballo, Koloko and Tubelis provide legitimate NBA size and athleticism in the frontcourt to protect the rim and work the glass. Mathurin has evolved as a No. 1 scoring option that can drop 25 points any night. All eight guys, particularly Koloko and Terry, are great lateral athletes that move their feet well defensively and won’t get overwhelmed by a speedy opposition.

Shooting, which is still at a respectable 35.4% from three-point range, would be the only real area of pause. But the Wildcats’ ball movement that thrives through their efficiency on the interior and in transition is so deadly that they can more than overcome a bad shooting game or two.

Even though there’s only a smidge of NCAA Tournament experience on this team, they are incredibly legit and should be the favorites to win it all.

Kevin Zimmerman: Their chances are as good as anyone else’s. And I think a lot of people like Arizona’s chances because they have five players who could end a game as the best player of that night. What other team has that?

Gonzaga is led by Drew Timme and likely No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Chet Holmgren. Holmgren looked mortal in two recent games against Saint Mary’s, while Timme at some point could be limited after preying on undersized WCC squads all year.

Kansas enters the tournament rolling. Baylor is up there, Villanova is just scary because it’s Villanova and UCLA has its experience from last year.

The Big Ten teams have their own player of the year candidates in Keegan Murray (Iowa), Johnny Davis (Wisconsin), E.J. Liddell (Ohio State) and Kofi Cockburn (Illinois). But those teams all have their flaws.

Kentucky, Auburn and Duke I’d argue have the multiple high-caliber talents who could gel at the right time. But Arizona gelled back in December.

The point I’m trying to make: The Wildcats have played well all season long on both ends of the court with seven-to-eight guys deep. Four of them could end up in the NBA. Other than the shooting concerns, it’s hard to say any other team has a better combination of on-paper talent and a blueprint for success.

How much will the Wildcats be affected by the absence of Kerr Kriisa if he misses more than the opening matchup against a No. 16 seed?

Olson: A lot more than people think. I understand that Kriisa is an erratic player but he is the best pick-and-roll player on the team and a tenacious defender. While he could shoot 0-for-14 from deep one game and 8-of-9 the next, he takes the most 3s of anyone and that’s because of how great of a shooter he is in a multitude of situations.

He also just doesn’t care if he misses, and those possessions off misses or makes where he flies up the court and gets Arizona a shot within seven seconds or less (heh) help maintain the pressure the Wildcats’ lethal offense puts on other teams. That’s part of what makes Kriisa the heart of this team as a true point guard, just in a different way than we’re used to.

All of that hampers the Wildcats’ dual-center lineups the most, where Ballo and Koloko rely on Kriisa’s vision when possessions go sour and can’t get the big lads the rock. There’s less spacing because there’s one less shooter on the floor, and because Kriisa is not playing, that means this lineup is featured even more.

Even though Arizona can get by the first weekend fine without him because of how well Kier is playing, the Sweet 16 and on are huge games where they really need the unique spirit Kriisa plays with.

Zimmerman: Immediately, I think it will impact the depth more than show up schematically. Arizona was stuck at eight players before Kriisa’s injury, and head coach Tommy Lloyd went to the little-used freshman Adama Bal in the Pac-12 title game just to keep that rotation at that size.

The brand of this team is to run on teams, play in-your-face defense and eventually break an opponent. It’s not as easy to do against teams that can match Arizona’s size and physical profile.

But once the Wildcats hit the blue blood type programs, it will matter that Kriisa’s seven 3-point attempts per game, pesky defense and playmaking aren’t there. It’s one important element off the scouting report.

That said, Kier has plenty of playing experience, shooting and off-the-bounce game to make up for Kriisa’s absence in the immediate future.

Terry can run more point guard, and maybe Arizona can continue getting added pop by him finding a little 3-point success. Bal also drilled two 3s in just nine minutes of play last Saturday against UCLA.

What type of profile does an Arizona opponent need to have to pull off an upset against them?

Olson: This is a discussion we want to have because of the balance the Wildcats have.

First of all, they need to have size. Ballo and Koloko have eaten smaller teams up all year and will do it again in March. That size doesn’t have to be functional. Just a small semblance of being large human beings.

Beyond that, the squad either needs to be well-rounded and/or have some serious star power at the top. Arizona’s core eight guys will not all underperform in a game. A few of them? Sure. But the depth is impressive and will always see some guys step up and make plays. Can a random dude off a Cinderella such as Ali Farokhmanesh from Northern Iowa in 2010 do it? How about Connecticut’s 2011 run behind Kemba Walker?

Think of performances like that. Yes, like Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker against the Wildcats in back-to-back years.

In terms of some benchmarks, hitting 3s and limiting turnovers are good ones. Looking at Arizona’s region, No. 8 Seton Hall and No. 9 TCU both do not qualify for that and struggle offensively so I’d be shocked if either of them pose a real threat over the weekend.

Further out, though, is where third-seeded Tennessee and No. 4 Illinois could lie in wait with success in regular-season meetings. Tennessee beat the Wildcats while Illinois pushed Arizona to the brink with 16 triples in Champaign, and both of those teams have guards that can score. We all know a second-seeded Villanova team will execute and No. 5 Houston is rock solid even without injured top scorer Marcus Sasser. I’m keeping a close eye on seventh-seeded Ohio State, who ESPN’s 2022 NBA Draft Big Board has two potential first-round picks on, E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham.

Zimmerman: Arizona is either the tallest or second-tallest team in the country, depending on who you ask. Lloyd admits he loves going with Koloko and Ballo on the court at the same time, which adds a tough element to deal with considering Arizona’s regular lineups are probably taller than half of the NBA teams out there.

So an opponent needs size.

They also need shooting. Colorado took 17 more threes and made 10 more than Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament semis and STILL LOST BY 10. That’s because they coughed it up 18 times and fouled a ton, putting the Wildcats on the line 25 times (they missed once!). We’ll call the fouling a symptom of a lack of size and credit Arizona’s aggressiveness.

A team cannot turn the ball over against Arizona and cannot get in foul trouble.

This list is long!

Here’s one thing that also parallels what Kellan wrote and I swear I did not copy: Matchups matter.

Scheme-wise, Arizona is sound. It might come down to someone neither their best perimeter defender (Terry), nor best wing athlete (Mathurin), not pesky ball-hawk (Kriisa) nor the floating-across-the-court-rim-protector (Koloko) can handle.

A short-list of those dudes includes Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Iowa’s Keegan Murray and Ohio State’s Liddell — all are guys who are jumbo wings and three-level scorers.

Of players to note from Arizona’s quadrant that might fall into this category are Liddell and Colorado State’s David Roddy.

Out of respect, I will also throw a bone to Illinois’ Cockburn, who could have a rebound performance against Koloko if they met again. Maybe.

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