Arizona’s NCAA tournament pod of 15th-seeded North Dakota, No. 10 VCU and No. 7 Saint Mary’s is a tournament of its own at Salt Lake City.
Sean Miller’s team must focus on the Fighting Hawks first and if the Wildcats take care of business, they will face either VCU or Saint Mary’s in the next round.
Chances are many in Tucson do not have a clue about any of these teams. This post is not so much going over the individual talent of each team but some of the storylines involved with each program.
— Do you think UCLA coach Steve Alford and North Dakota coach Brian Jones — longtime associates — may have exchanged text messages about the first-round game with Arizona? Jones came to North Dakota in 2006 after spending the previous seven seasons as an assistant on Alford’s staff at Iowa. He spent the last five seasons of his tenure as an assistant coach after serving as administrative assistant coach in his first two years with the Hawkeyes. Prior to arriving at Iowa, Jones spent the 1998-99 season under Alford as administrative assistant coach at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State), where he helped lead the Bears to an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance and a top-20 national ranking.
— Saint Mary’s returned its top eight scorers from last season — seven players on the roster are from Australia — and the group is a close-knit team. Arizona has an Australian — Keanu Pinder — who hails from Perth. Pinder was a teammate of two Gaels as part of Australia’s 2013 FIBA U19 Team. They are point guard Emmett Naar and power forward Dane Pineau.
— VCU has continued its full-court “Havoc” defense although Shaka Smart is two years removed from being its coach. Former assistant Will Wade, now the head coach, has kept that brand. “Havoc” is actually a trademarked name by the Rams.
— North Dakota, making its first NCAA tournament appearance, lost 68-67 to an NAU team that was 5-17 entering the game Jan. 28 at Flagstaff. The Fighting Hawks went on to win 11 of its next 12 games after that game, including all three games in the Big Sky tournament to claim the title and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
— Saint Mary’s has two freshmen from Arizona — Elijah Thomas from Peoria and Tommy Kuhse from Mesa. Both are redshirting this season. Thomas, from Peoria Sunrise Mountain High School, was a three-star wing who was recruited by mostly Mountain West schools. Kuhse, of Mesa Mountain View, is a walk-on point guard with the Gaels.
— VCU played Atlantic 10 foe Dayton twice, which would give Miller plenty of scouting help from his brother Archie, head coach of the Flyers. The Rams split the two games with Dayton, winning 73-68 at home on Jan. 27 and losing at Dayton 79-72 on March 1. Speaking of scouting help, former Arizona staffer Jack Murphy, NAU’s coach, could have provided information to Miller as well about the Fighting Hawks. The Lumberjacks, who finished 9-23 in a rebuilding season, almost defeated North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D., on Jan. 5. NAU was down by only two with less than a minute remaining. Late free throws by North Dakota guards Geno Crandall and Quentin Hooker secured the 68-63 victory.
— Arizona went the whole regular season without going into overtime, the first time that’s happened since 2010-11. That season, they lost to Washington in overtime in the Pac-10 tournament title game. The Wildcats have experienced an overtime at least once every season since 2003-04. Meanwhile, North Dakota had four overtimes this season, all victories, including the Big Sky tournament championship game over Weber State last week. VCU has also played four overtimes, splitting them. Saint Mary’s has also not endured an overtime this season.
— North Dakota’s nickname was once the Fighting Sioux, but that was until the NCAA deemed it hostile and abusive to Native Americans. The Fighting Hawks moniker was rolled out this year after a three-year moratorium to allow fans to calm down after the demise of the Fighting Sioux. North Dakota administrators are more concerned about the financial strength of its athletic department. The basketball team’s success is providing a morale boost for a college stung by budget cuts due primarily to low oil and crop prices. In addition to academic cuts, the school is considering cutting sports programs. Eight have gone through a review: men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s golf, women’s soccer and softball.
— Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett is taking his sixth team to the NCAA tournament since 2005, but his first since 2013. When Arizona was in search of a permanent head coach in 2009, Bennett’s name came up as a candidate. Bennett, who is from Mesa, had just completed his eighth season in 2008-09 with a record of 28-7. He has also been rumored as a candidate for recent coaching vacancies for ASU and Stanford. His father was a longtime coach at Mesa Community College, where Bennett played before playing with San Diego. If Bobby Hurley is lured away by a higher profile job in the coming years, ASU should aggressively go after Bennett.
— VCU’s Wade never played college basketball. He graduated from Clemson in 2005. He spent six years working with that program between 2001 and 2007 as a student manager for four seasons, a graduate assistant for one and director of operations another. Wade entered this season as one of the youngest coaches in Division I at 33. The youngest are 32-year-olds Dana Ford of Tennessee State and Bashir Mason of Morgan State.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.