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March 29, 2014

Arizona seeks first Final Four trip in 13 years

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The earthquake that rocked Southern California on Friday night may have been a different experience for two head coaches from the state of Pennsylvania, but the Elite Eight will certainly not be foreign to Sean Miller and Bo Ryan.

Now, one of the two will take another step into unchartered territory: the Final Four.

Miller and top seed Arizona (33-4) will take on Ryan and No. 2 seed Wisconsin (29-7) in the NCAA West Regional final Saturday at Honda Center. The coaches are a combined 0-3 in the round.

The game, scheduled for a 5:49 p.m. tipoff, will be the lone 1-2 regional contest in the NCAA tournament.

"It's hard to get to a Final Four," said Miller, 45, who also took Xavier to the regional final in 2008. "(Former Arizona head coach) Lute Olson has told me time and time again, and one of the things I try to do is look at the history of our program.

"Our program under coach Olson has been to four Final Fours. That translated into one national championship. But the more pivotal, and I think the more respectful thing to think about coach Olson's time at Arizona, is you could make the argument that he competed for a national championship or a Final Four maybe 15 times."

The Wildcats, now in their 10th appearance all-time in the round, are in search of their first Final Four trip in 13 years. The last UA team to get to this point made an unexpected run in 2011 behind Derrick Williams, only to come up short after Jamelle Horne's potential game-winning 3-pointer misfired in a 65-63 loss to Connecticut.

But Miller, now in his fifth season, said the circumstances are "much different" this year with more of a balanced team that started the campaign 21-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the country for eight consecutive weeks.

"We've been highly expected almost from the onset of the season," said Miller, whose Wildcats rallied to top No. 4 seed San Diego State, 70-64, on Thursday.

"So, we've always been on that side of it. We hoped that we could get it here or we expected to get here. So with that, I think we have a confidence about our team that is a healthy confidence."

The confidence has been most evident in junior All-American guard Nick Johnson, who missed his first 10 shots before scoring all 15 of his points over the final 2:44 - including a 10-of-10 display on free throws - to put away the Aztecs.

On the other bench will be the 66-year-old Ryan, someone Miller said he has admired growing up after his father and high school basketball coach, John, introduced the two.

The Badgers last appeared in the Elite Eight in 2005, making Ryan's return a little longer than his counterpart. Wisconsin - which last played in the Final Four in 2000 under previous head coach Dick Bennett - has been bounced from the Sweet 16 three times, dating back to 2008.

But Ryan, who owns a .759 winning percentage with 703 career victories, is just thankful to see at least another 40 minutes of basketball.

"As I told the guys (Wednesday), I thanked them for giving the staff and I the opportunity to make this trip," Ryan said after his Badgers shot 52 percent to roll past No. 6 seed Baylor, 69-52.

The players on both sides are well aware of the storyline, too, but the focus on securing one more win - and blocking out the significance of the big stage - has been passed down.

Even the youngest of players in their first NCAA tournament trip are keeping the focus on a game between Arizona and Wisconsin, and nothing more.

"It would be a great honor to do that," Wisconsin freshman Nigel Hayes said. "Coach Ryan is a great coach, but we have to stay focused on 'A' before we move on to 'B.'"

Added Arizona first-year star Aaron Gordon: "The moment you think about that, that's a distraction and it takes away from your energy and your instinct."

The contest will be a matter of strength versus strength, on opposite ends of the floor.

Defensive-minded Arizona, behind a "pack-line" scheme reliant on closing out on the perimeter and swarming the paint, has allowed opponents to shoot just 38 percent and average 58.4 points per game - both of which rank fifth in the country, respectively. Through three tournament games, only Gonzaga has slightly shot above 40 percent.

While the rebounding dominance has fallen off since Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending foot injury Feb. 1 - Arizona is minus-6.7 on the boards and has lost all three battles in the tournament - the Badgers remain leery of the Wildcats' ability to turn missed shots and turnovers into easy points.

Arizona forced 21 turnovers for 31 points against Gonzaga. Wisconsin senior guard Ben Brust said UA's host of athletes such as Gordon, who is shooting 73.3 percent in the postseason, make it a priority to get back in transition.

"They throw lobs to guys all the way up there, where I can't even see," Brust said. "It's crazy watching some of the stuff on film, what they can do. So we've definitely got to be able to get back and try and make them play 5-on-5."

But the Badgers don't make many mistakes, Miller said. Wisconsin, known more for its defense in past years, has averaged fewer than 8.1 turnovers while shooting 46.1 percent from the field as a team - including 51.7 percent from below the 3-point line.

The Badgers have connected on 50 percent of their shots in the tournament, and better than 40 percent beyond the arc, behind four double-digit scorers. Brust, the team's second-leading scorer at 13 points per game, has connected on 11 of 20 from long range over the three contests.

Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell, a Pac-12 Conference defensive team member along with Johnson, described Wisconsin's style as one with "pure shooters."

"One through five they can shoot," McConnell said. "And they defend well, they're very disciplined. They don't beat themselves.

"I think that's why they're so good. The chemistry that they have is unreal…so it's going to be a tough one."

Meanwhile, across the country in Memphis will be Archie Miller - who has No. 11 seed Dayton in the Elite Eight for the first time in 30 years. The Flyers will face top overall seed Florida in the South Regional final, more than two-and-a-half hours before the Wildcats play.

The Millers, who are separated by 10 years, are the first brother tandem to advance this far with separate teams in the same tournament, and big brother Sean said the run has been "a remarkable couple of weeks." Both are now a victory apiece shy from turning next week's Final Four into a Miller Time reunion in Arlington, Texas.

"It's so fast moving," Sean Miller said. "I have not really talked to my brother on the phone. We both texted each other congratulations.

"I think we both recognize it's very special for our families."

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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