After slipping into NCAAs, Wildcats prepare for West Virginia Print
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Tuesday, 18 March 2008 11:36
NCAAB Headline News


 TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -For perhaps the first time in this turbulent season, the Arizona Wildcats find themselves in a familiar place - the NCAA tournament.
The No. 10-seeded Wildcats will make their 24th straight appearance, the nation's longest active streak, when they meet seventh-seeded West Virginia in the West Regional on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
``I'm ecstatic that these guys are still getting a chance to keep playing and keep practicing and getting a chance to show who they are,'' interim coach Kevin O'Neill said. ``I think we're going to play a lot more basketball. I think we're going to work hard to try to get a win against West Virginia and see where it goes from there.''
In some ways, drawing an NCAA berth represents a victory for the Wildcats (19-14), who are no longer among the national elite and have been reduced to sweating out Selection Sunday. Arizona squeezed into the tourney on the strength of its nonconference schedule, which included road trips to Memphis, Kansas and UCLA, all of which earned No. 1 seeds on Sunday.
``I never thought coming to Arizona we would be a bubble team, but it happens and things happen for a reason,'' star freshman Jerryd Bayless said. ``Hopefully we can win some games in the tournament.''
The tournament gives the Wildcats a chance to put a happy face on a season many here would rather forget.
It began with the Nov. 4 announcement that Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson was taking a leave of absence for undisclosed personal reasons. A month later, the 73-year-old Olson extended his leave through the season on the same day he filed for divorce from his wife, Christine.
O'Neill was promoted from assistant coach to interim coach and later designated the permanent successor when Olson retires. But O'Neill has not said whether he will rejoin the staff when Olson returns next season, raising questions about the succession plan.
Injuries to Bayless and point guard Nic Wise left the Wildcats vulnerable in the competitive Pac-10, and Arizona slipped to seventh place, its worst finish since 1984, Olson's first year.
Arizona limped to the postseason, finishing 4-8 - and two of the victories were against Oregon State, the first team to go winless in Pac-10 play since the conference expanded in 1978.
``I think it's a great accomplishment for our team to make the NCAA tournament,'' O'Neill said. ``And now what we want to do is do some things in the tournament. We don't want to just get there.''
Bayless returned from his injury to average 20 points, third in the Pac-10. Wise has come back from knee surgery to provide an offensive spark.
``I can't tell you how good it is to have Nic back,'' O'Neill said. ``We're going to play good basketball. I don't know if we'll win or not, but we're going to play good basketball.''
If the Wildcats beat the Mountaineers (24-10), they'll likely run into No. 2-seed Duke. The Blue Devils are heavy favorites against Belmont in the opening round.
The Wildcats are 1-6 when seeded eighth or lower in the NCAA tournament, including a 1-3 record since 2004.
O'Neill isn't worried about the number next to Arizona's name in the brackets.
``What we need to do right now is focus on what these guys can do in the NCAA tournament,'' O'Neill said. ``I don't think we take a back seat to anybody.''
 

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