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January 29, 2013

Better-than-expected schedule bolsters Arizona's resume

There was no shortage of lamentations from fans and media about the strength - or lack thereof - of Arizona's nonconference schedule.

But the latest top 25 polls suggest that maybe the Wildcats' docket wasn't so weak after all. As the calendar turns from January to February, and jockeying for NCAA tournament seeding begins in earnest, the nonconference slate might actually be a benefit to UA landing its first No. 1 seed since 2003.

Yahoo! Sports' Brad Evans seems to think so. His latest Bracket Big Board projections have the Wildcats occupying one of the four top seeds, despite UA sitting at No. 8 in the latest rankings. Impressive out-of-conference wins give Sean Miller's squad a solid resume:

- Miami's big week propelled the Hurricanes up the polls, from unranked to No. 14/15. The Hurricanes blew past former No. 1 Duke, 90-63, and had no trouble with rival Florida State.

- San Diego State rebounded from sluggish performances against UNLV and Wyoming and put on a defensive clinic in a rout of previously No. 15-ranked New Mexico.

- Florida remains the pace-setter in the SEC, joining UA as a one seed in The Dagger's latest projections.

- Southern Miss was a tournament team in 2012, but lost head coach Larry Eustachy to Colorado State and four of its five leading scorers to graduation.

The Golden Eagles weren't great opponents on paper when they visited Tucson in December, but midway through the Conference USA season are undefeated and garnering votes in the coaches poll. A date with fellow C-USA unbeaten Memphis on Feb. 9 looms large.

Part of the UA identity under Lute Olson was the philosophy anyone, anytime, anywhere. The first Final Four team in 1987-88 set the tone. Those Wildcats played nationally ranked Michigan and Syracuse in the Great Alaska Shootout; at Iowa; at New Mexico; and hosted Duke in the Fiesta Bowl Classic.

No one will confuse this year's schedule for some of those more ambitious, Olson-led teams, but it's not as weak as some of Syracuse's notoriously cupcake-loaded diets.

"We deserve a lot of credit because we brought a huge nonconference resume into our conference," Miller said in a press conference on Jan. 22, referencing UA's fourth ranked strength of schedule per the Rating Percentage Index (RPI).

RPI may not be the most reliable measurement on which to evaluate a team's schedule, but it is a metric that has aligned with NCAA committee decisions on Selection Sunday.

A one seed is an attainable goal for this team, but its own margin for error is thin after falling to 5-2 in Pac-12 Conference competition with a loss to erratic UCLA.

A fair criticism of UA's nonconference schedule before it panned out was the conference has not been conducive to quality wins of late. Oregon has exceeded expectations, but avoids a trip to Tucson. That's one fewer crack at a resume win in the regular season's final month.

As difficult as it might be for most Wildcat fans to stomach, the continued success of Arizona State provides a boost to UA's portfolio. The Sun Devils garnered two votes in the coaches poll, and 14 in the Associated Press poll.

UCLA and Colorado are both in the hunt for a tournament berth, and UA draws each on the road in the final month for two more opportunities at resume wins.

Of course, this juncture in the season is much too early for scoreboard watching. The Pacific Northwest road trip is a historically-proven roadblock, particularly Washington. The Huskies have won every game at Hec Edmondson Pavilion since 2007.

Kyle KensingKyle Kensing
GOAZCATS.com Staff Writer

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