The Arizona Wildcats’ tourney journey starts today — about 6:50 p.m. Tucson time against No. 15 seed North Dakota from Salt Lake City, Utah — so let’s empty out some thoughts and notes before it all gets going.
Here are five things to watch for the game against the Fighting Hawks, and a prediction at the end.
1. Who to know on North Dakota
The Fighting Hawks’ best player is 6-foot guard Quinton Hooker, a senior who averages 19.1 points and has seven games this season with more than 25 points.
“Being the underdog is something that here at North Dakota we’ve been, for most of us, the entire time we’ve been here,” Hooker said Wednesday at a press conference. “God has put us all here for a reason, we think we’re a special group. It’s fun to play with my guys and this team. We’re excited to be here.”
Guard Geno Crandall averages 15.6 points and guard Corey Baldwin averages 10.3 while shooting 42.2 percent from 3-point range (70 of 166).
“They’re a very talented team,” said Arizona guard Kadeem Allen, “but we’ve been playing against talented guards all year. It’s not new to us.”
2. Parker Jackson-Cartwright staying hot
Arizona’s point guard has been playing with great energy, and his ball-handling is a must as Arizona marches on in the tournament. Jackson-Cartwright has a 23-4 assist-to-turnover ratio in the past six games.
Moreover, opposing defenses have little choice but to focus on Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen, picking their poison by daring PJC to shoot. It’s the smart move. Can’t blame them. But Jackson-Cartwright has been making foes pay dearly in the past couple of months.
He has drilled 22 of his past 34 3-point attempts (64.7 percent), calmly and confidently taking good shots whenever they present themselves.
3. Allonzo Trier staying even hotter
Trier, the Most Outstanding Player of the Pac-12 tournament, is in midseason form after missing the first 19 games of the season due to suspension. It took the sophomore a while to find his 3-point stroke, but find it he has.
Here is Trier in the past seven games, during which he has scored at least 19 in every game”
–Points: 22.1 per game
–Rebounds: 4.6 per game
–Field goals: 45 of 82 (54.9%)
–3-point field goals: 19 of 37 (51.4%)
–Free throws: 46 of 56 (82.1%)
The best part of his game might be that he is averaging eight free throw attempts in the past seven games, hitting 80 percent for the season. Trier can get easy offense when the offense is otherwise in a lull.
Coach Sean Miller actually beams the most about something else entirely. Trier has 40 assists in 476 minutes this season. He had 31 in 757 minutes last season.
“The thing that I’m proudest of him, and I think that our team appreciates the most, is how he has learned to pass the ball, play with others better than he ever has before,” Miller said.
4. A Kobi Simmons appearance
The freshman guard was huge this season in an opening victory over Michigan State and a win at UCLA in January.
But as the playing rotation has changed late in the season — Trier has to be on the court as much as possible, and Jackson-Cartwright’s floor leadership is invaluable — Simmons has been squeezed out. And, let’s face it, he hasn’t been playing well on either end of the court in the time he gets anyway.
Simmons has three points in the past five games, shooting 1 of 11 from the field.
But he’s still the elite athlete who scored 18 vs. the Spartans and 20 against the Bruins, and not many teams have an eighth or ninth man as capable as Simmons. He showed a great attitude in the open postgame locker room at the Pac-12 tournament, so don’t write him off yet. He might yet play a critical role in a critical stretch at some point in the NCAAs.
A potential blowout against North Dakota could mean ample court time — and a confidence-boost — for Simmons.
“We’ve shrunk our rotation a little bit, we’ve given some players more minutes, maybe others less,” Miller said Wednesday. “But that’s not really a reflection on Kobi as a player or his attitude.”
5. The chances of a mega-upset
No need to remind Arizona fans than No. 15 seeds can beat a No. 2. But the Wildcats are favored by about 17.5 points today, and kenpom.com crunches the numbers and figures Arizona has a 92 percent chance of winning.
That sounds low.
North Dakota doesn’t have great size, starting nobody taller than 6-8.
North Dakota isn’t a high-volume 3-point shooting team, attempting slightly more per game than Arizona (18.2 to 16.9).
North Dakota hasn’t played an elite, athletic team; the closest it came was playing at Iowa, losing 84-73 in December. (The Fighting Hawks have a loss to NAU in the Big Sky.)
North Dakota is typically a man-to-man team, and even if it plays zone, doesn’t have the size or athleticism to make it particularly problematic for the Cats.
North Dakota likes to play fast, with the nation’s 35th-fastest tempo, according to kenpom.com. That doesn’t seem like a good way for a small-conference team to beat Arizona.
PREDICTION: Arizona 85, North Dakota 59