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March 21, 2013
After a one-year absence, Arizona returns to the NCAA tournament Thursday in Salt Lake City. But the stay could be short-lived if a hot-shooting team searching for its first tournament win in program history can shake off some rust.
The sixth-seeded Wildcats will meet No. 11 Belmont in a second-round West Regional matchup at Energy Solutions Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for 5:20 p.m. MDT/4:20 p.m. local Arizona time.
Arizona (25-7), which finish tied for second place in the Pac-12 Conference, has lost three of its last five games - including a Pac-12 tournament semifinal contest to UCLA last Friday.
Lately, however, the 21st-ranked Wildcats have received balanced production, similar to what helped the team storm through the nonconference slate and win its first 14 games this season. Led by freshman Grant Jerrett, the bench is averaging 19.8 points per game in the last five contests.
"On offense, we have to play unselfish team basketball where we can create good shots," said UA head coach Sean Miller, who is 9-5 all-time in NCAA tournament games and has his team back in the Big Dance after an NIT appearance last season.
The 'Cats will attempt to do so against a Belmont team that forces 17.4 turnovers per game.
But despite entering the tournament on a six-game winning streak, the Bruins (26-6) have not played since defeating Murray State for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship March 9.
That may not matter to the nation's fourth-best shooting team, which has proven to be especially accurate from the 3-point line. Belmont, which averages 77.2 points per game, is shooting 38.6 percent from beyond the arc.
UA senior Solomon Hill said he expects a "fast-paced" game despite his team's size advantage.
None of the Bruins' eight regulars stand taller than 6-7, while UA started a frontcourt of Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski - 6-8 and 7 feet, respectively - for most of the season until recently. Jerrett is another matchup problem at 6-10.
But it's nothing Belmont forward and leading rebounder Trevor Noack hasn't dealt with before.
"It's just going to be a battle," Noack said. "You've got to push on as much as you can and not let 'em get position. That's a big thing. If they get position, then there is not a whole lot you can do.
"As far as the offensive end goes, we really try to spread the floor and that's one thing we do really well."
And the bulk of the responsibility rests on the shooting hand of leading scorer Ian Clark, who averages 18.1 points and shoots a staggering 54.1 percent for a perimeter player. The 6-3 senior guard also leads the nation in 3-point shooting at 46.3 percent, and the Arizona players made Clark the focal point of scouting report.
Ironically, Bruins head coach Rick Byrd was initially opposed to the 3-point shot when it was approved for the college game in 1986 - his first season at the helm. Twenty-seven years later, Byrd is now trying to score the program's first win in six NCAA tournament trips behind the nation's 18th-best team from long range.
"I thought the most under-recruited guy was a guy that could shoot it and maybe didn't reach the athletic line that a lot of coaches in Division I want as a player," Byrd said. "We continued to recruit along those lines because we were having success and now we have a team of much better athletes."
Backcourt mate Kerron Johnson can be just as dangerous. The team's second-leading scorer and point guard has attempted 210 free throws and has converted on 77.6 percent.
"Part of what makes Clark so good is they have an excellent point guard in Johnson," said Miller, a one-time floor general at Pittsburgh. "I believe that's one of several keys to what makes them such a great team."
Playing against a seasoned team that counts four seniors among its eight-man rotation, the Wildcats have become a target to get upset since the pairings were announced Sunday. Even President Barack Obama has Belmont advancing into Saturday's third round.
But Hill said the postseason is not a time when the players should need any bulletin board material to perform.
"If you need something to motivate you at this point you're here for the wrong reasons," Hill said. "I think everybody on our team wants to win. I think we all dial into what we are going to do on the court and not about the opponent."