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March 21, 2014

Top-seed Arizona looks to squash No. 16 Weber State's upset bid

SAN DIEGO -- One set of Wildcats will advance Friday in a second-round NCAA tournament contest at Viejas Arena. One just happens to be looking to make history, while the other is looking stay off the wrong side of it.

Arizona (30-4), the top seed in the West Region, will look to keep No. 16 seeds winless in the history of the tournament when it faces Weber State (19-11), which shares the same name. No. 1s are 117-0 all-time against No. 16s, since the field expanded in 1985, including Florida's 67-55 win over Albany on Thursday.

Tipoff is scheduled for 11:10 a.m. The winner will move on to play either No. 8 Gonzaga or No. 9 Oklahoma State on Sunday.

"I told our kids from day one when we found out we were playing Arizona, I said, 'A 16 has never beat a 1 and it's going to happen someday,'" Weber State head coach Randy Rahe said. "There have been some close calls and we'll see what happens tomorrow. But from our standpoint all you want is an opportunity to have a chance to do that and when you have opportunity, there is hope, and that's we're going to take into that game tomorrow.

"Our kids aren't going to be afraid."

Weber State hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1999, when it knocked off North Carolina as a No. 14 seed.

To win, Weber State will have to overcome a defensive-minded Arizona team that has publicly shown respect to its opening opponent since the draw was announced Sunday.

UA head coach Sean Miller, who has never lost to a lower seed in 16 career NCAA tournament games, said his team's focus cannot be on the seed. Miller sees a Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament champion, led by league player of the year Davion Berry, that doesn't "beat themselves" and is a threat from the 3-point line. Weber State shot 39.2 percent from beyond the arc, tied with Oregon for the 20th-best mark in the country.

But Miller is not worried about the pressure that comes with a top seed, either. Arizona, the Pac-12 regular-season champions, spent eight consecutive weeks atop the major national polls during a 21-0 start to the season.

"We have to be ready or we won't advance. It's that simple," said Miller, the Pac-12 coach of the year.

"We're not going to overlook them, you don't have to worry about that. If you're the 1 seed, you don't want to talk about the fact that that's never happened, you know? There is nothing good that's going to come out of that conversation."

And if there is one thing Arizona has not lacked this season, it is focus.

UA forward Aaron Gordon, the Pac-12 freshman of the year, wouldn't even entertain a question about possibly facing Oklahoma State guard and U19 U.S. national team teammate Marcus Smart, if both teams advance to the next round.

Instead, Gordon is more interested in making up for last Saturday's Pac-12 tournament championship game loss to UCLA. Arizona missed 10 free throws - six by Gordon - and shot just 38.7 percent in the second half.

"I'm still holding on to [the memory] right now," Gordon said, five days removed from the loss. "Losses go with me forever and that's what keeps me working."

The game also could signal the beginning of the end for a number of underclassmen in an Arizona uniform, headlined by Gordon, a likely top-10 pick in the June NBA draft, and possibly Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson. But that will be a decision for after the season.

The task at hand right now is centered around defending Berry, who will see both Johnson and UA point guard T.J. McConnell on him defensively.

"[Berry] can score the ball," Johnson said. "He's a leader for their team and definitely going to be a matchup that I'm looking forward to, just trying to limit his easy looks that he gets on offense, and if he's guarding me, work him a little bit, make him work on defense."

The senior is averaging a team-high 19.1 points, shooting 38.3 percent from the 3-point line and attempting 8.1 free throws per game en route to 81.6 percent from the stripe.

But Berry will go up against a stifling defense that has allowed just 58.1 points (fifth in the country) on 38.1 percent shooting (seventh).

"It's a great challenge," Berry said.

If there is a chance for Weber State to pull off the stunning upset, it may come in the form of Arizona's free throw shooting. The 6-of-16 performance against UCLA dropped Arizona to 65.5 percent on the season - tied for 310th out of 351 teams.

But you don't need to remind Arizona, which knows the smallest of mistakes can derail the ultimate goal of six wins over the next three weeks.

"We're in the Big Dance right now, so it's win or go home," Johnson said.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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