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March 21, 2013
Arizona's size flattens Belmont's upset bid
Zubaz pants. Slap bracelets. Dexy's Midnight Runners. All these things were trendy at one time or another, but we look back on with bewilderment.
Picking Belmont to upset Arizona in the second round of the NCAA tournament Thursday was another trendy move, as hot in March 2013 as the Harlem Shake. Everyone was doing it, from TV personalities to the President of the United States.
Had the Bruins knocked off the Wildcats, the more zealous among the UA fan base would have had a White House conspiracy to kick around. Alas, Sean Miller's team built an advantage that never dipped below double digits in the second half, even after a Reggie Miller-against-the-Knicks-like barrage.
The en vogue Belmont pick is something people can now look back on with a similar what-were-we-thinking headshake as they will remember their Harlem Shake videos - hopefully sooner than later with the latter, but I digress.
"I don't blame people for picking Belmont. They have a great backcourt," Miller said. "They earned the seed that they got. You look at them on paper and they're scary."
Miller is not wrong. Belmont was among the nation's best 3-pointing shooting teams, and head coach Rick Byrd has cultivated the program into a bona fide tournament threat. His sixth trip to the NCAA tournament in the last eight years will not be his last.
But as scary as Ian Clark's long ball was on paper, the Wildcats' size and talent advantage should have been similarly intimidating. It certainly proved to be a determining factor, as Mark Lyons said in his postgame press conference.
"Our size advantage was significant. That's why our rebounding advantage was large today," he said. "Brandon [Ashley], Kaleb [Tarczewski] and Grant [Jerrett] did a great job rebounding - and Solomon [Hill], too."
Byrd was hardly sipping the same Kool-Aid as national columnists who Sharpie'd the Bruins into Saturday's action on their big boards. When I spoke to him earlier this week, he touted the Wildcats' many positives and the mismatch potential it would cause his team.
Following the 81-64 outcome, he wasn't changing his tune.
"Arizona just outplayed us. They played a better game than we did," Byrd said.
"I was more impressed with the team that I saw tonight than I was in scouting them. I thought they were more engaged and more focused, and I think if they play that way they can beat a lot of people."
UA succeeded in something it struggled with during conference play: dictating tempo. Belmont was going to have to double-down on shooting 3-pointers, and indeed, the Bruins hoisted up 27 from behind the arc.
Belmont came into Thursday's match-up shooting almost 40 percent from outside, an impressive figure. But the flip side to 40 percent falling is that 60 percent miss. Against UA's defense, more than 70 percent of the Bruins' attempts from deep missed.
Shooting from behind the arc is high risk, high reward. Attacking the rim lowers a team's risk, evident in the Wildcats' 57 percent shooting. It's Basketball 101. And yet, so many failed to do their homework in projecting this match-up.
A lack of faith in UA was less an indictment of the Wildcats than it was judgment on the conference.
The Pac-12 entered this postseason with something of an identity crisis. The conference's basketball has been harshly criticized for the last few years, reaching a crescendo last March when the regular-season champion was left out of the NCAA tournament.
Thursday's tournament play proved that dismissing the Pac-12 is much like posting "Call Me Maybe" parodies to YouTube - so 2012.
Some might be throwing out their brackets as a result of the conference's success, but for UA, it's no surprise.
"I know as a coach how hard that 18-game schedule was," Miller said. "You add the two that we played in the conference tournament, you're playing against terrific players, some incredible coaches and teams that can win."
Trends fade for a reason, and perhaps the play of UA and its Pac-12 brethren will force some to hang their doubt of the conference in the storage closet alongside that Dexy's Midnight Runners album.