Waiting for Arizona in Indianapolis for Friday's Sweet 16 matchup – No. 1 Louisville, who advanced to the Midwest Region Semifinals with a hard-earned 79-72 win over No. 9 Siena in Dayton.
The Wildcats are surging at the right time after finishing the regular-season with a .500 Pac-10 record (9-9 in league games). Though Arizona had made 25 straight trips to the NCAA prior to this season, the Wildcats were in danger of missing out after closing the season with five losses in their last six games, including a loss to Arizona State in the Pac-10 quarterfinals. However, Arizona's quality wins over UCLA, USC, Kansas and Gonzaga proved enough to earn a No. 12 seed – one of the last at-large bids doled out.
Now, after two wins in the NCAA Tournament, Arizona is hot heading to Indianapolis for their game against Louisville. The Wildcats are led by their three big guns – 6-9 center Jordan Hill, 6-8 forward Chase Budinger and 5-9 guard Nic Wise. Hill and Budinger both average 18 points, while Wise adds 15.5 per game. In the Wildcats win over Cleveland State, Arizona's Big Three scored 52 of Arizona's 71 points, including 21 from Wise, who made 10 of 10 foul attempts.
"We knew we could be here all along," Wise said. "We know we can be here and we have the talent to do it. We're proving it now and we're peaking at the right time."
Sweet 16 to play Louisville Friday
Arizona has dealt with coaching turmoil the past few seasons and hadn't advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2006. The Wildcats players have had three different coaches the past three seasons, including interim coach Russ Pennell. Pennell replaced Lute Olson last fall after the legendary Wildcats coach retired because of health concerns.
"I don't think anybody signed up for what has happened, especially me, Nic and Jordan," Budinger said. "We thought we would be playing for one coach our whole college career. You know, things change on you. You just have to go with it and stay positive, and I think that's what we've done. Making it to the Sweet 16, it feels great for us. We have the team to do it, and we're showing that we're a lot better than what people thought of us."
Against Cleveland State, a team that upset No. 4 seed Wake Forest with a relatively easy first round win, Arizona employed a 2-3 zone defense to stop the Vikings. Arizona limited Cleveland State to only 37 percent shooting, including just 3 of 23 three-pointers.
"Arizona's zone was really tough," Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said. "That's been our nemesis all year, the zone, because when people play us man to man, we really execute well. But the zone, you've got to hit shots, and if you don't hit shots, sometimes it's difficult to handle. We went 3 for 23, and it's hard to beat a team going 3 for 23 from the three point line.
"My hat's off to Arizona because they're going to be pretty good in this tournament if that zone stands still and Wise keeps playing the way he's playing and leading that team they're going to be pretty good throughout this tournament."
Louisville and Arizona played two common opponents this season – UAB and UNLV. Louisville beat the Blazers 82-62 on Dec. 27 while Arizona lost to UAB 72-71 on Nov. 18. Both teams fell to UNLV – Louisville 56-55 on Dec. 31 and Arizona 79-64 Dec. 20.
The Cardinals and Wildcats have played once before in the NCAA Tournament – an Arizona win in 1994 over Louisville in the West Regional semifinals. Arizona also won the last meeting between the two teams early in the 2007 season.