PHOENIX — Just as the Final Four committee held a formal tip-off event Wednesday, a few more basketball planets appeared to be lining up for the Arizona Wildcats.
Five days before Gov. Doug Ducey and various other officials formally introduced 2017 Final Four events at Phoenix Convention Center, the home-state Wildcats finally received the services of their top returning scorer, Allonzo Trier.
Just four days before Wednesday’s news conference, the Wildcats marched into Pauley Pavilion for their biggest win of the season, a nine-point victory over a potential No. 1 seed in UCLA. The night before, three more potential No. 1 seeds — Villanova, Kansas and Kentucky — all lost.
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“Those kinds of things are expected, but maybe not three in one night,” said Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, chair of this season’s NCAA Tournament selection committee.
So who’s to say Arizona, now fortified with Trier and three already well-seasoned freshman talents, can’t make that I-10 shuttle up to the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale for the final weekend of the season?
The Wildcats may have as good a chance as anybody at this point.
Certainly, that’s the impression Fat Lever has. The Pueblo High School legend, who went on to star at Arizona State and in the NBA, said after participating in the Final Four event Wednesday that he watches a lot of college basketball these days and believes the Wildcats have Final Four ability.
Getting there, of course, is another thing.
The UA still has 11 more regular-season games, starting Thursday against Washington State, even before the Pac-12 Tournament starts. Then there are the matchups and madness of the postseason to follow.
“When the Pac-12 tournament starts, that’s gonna be the indicator,” Lever said. “You hope that when that tournament comes around they’re playing good basketball. If they can get here, it all comes down to brackets.”
Even though Lever played for ASU, he says the word “hope” about the UA in apparent sincerity.
Lever not only has hometown roots in Tucson but says he’ll even root for UA over ASU when the Wildcats have somebody he’s close to playing for them — such as Nick Johnson, who once trained with Lever as a Phoenix-area youth. He says he pulls for all Pac-12 teams, too.
Lever’s not the only one with Sun Devil blood pulling for the Wildcats. The executive director of the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee herself, former ASU administrator Dawn Rogers, once hired UA coach Sean Miller to be the head coach at Xavier.
She reacted the way Arizona Wildcats fans might have when the Trier news spread last weekend.
“I went to work out and I saw the ticker on the screen that said ‘Trier returning,’ and I was so excited for them,” Rogers said. “I was really impressed with the maturity and poise of his team even before they had Trier back.”
But even with Trier, Rogers said, teams “really need a lot of things to fall in place” to make the difficult journey to a Final Four, and history suggests the odds are not in the Wildcats’ favor.
Only a handful of teams in the modern Final Four era (since 1979) have reached the event from within a half-day’s drive. No home-state team has ever won it in that era, though Kansas was just 40 miles from home across the Missouri-Kansas border when it won the 1988 title at Kemper Arena.
However, Butler’s appearance at the Indianapolis Final Four in 2010 and Michigan State’s participation in the 2015 event at Detroit added a notably different flavor. Hollis said Michigan State had up to 30,000 fans among the 65,000 watching the Detroit Final Four.
“All four teams that make it here are [going to]have earned their way here and each one of them will have a special story,” Hollis said. “Ultimately as a committee, all we care about is that the four best and most deserving teams advance their way to the Final Four.
“However, when a local team does make the Final Four, it brings an extra level of excitement. … If Arizona or UCLA or Gonzaga or Oregon were to advance here, it would bring an extra level of excitement, I would think.”
None of those teams would surprise pundits if they made it to Glendale for what will be the West’s first Final Four since 1995, when the event was held at the Seattle Kingdome.
The Kingdome was demolished in 2000, leaving the West without a covered structure that met the 60,000-seat minimum until Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium was built in 2006.
“I think West Coast basketball is great every year,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice-president of basketball. “But it is neat that you’ve got so many Final Four contenders in the region this year and I think it’s something that the committee envisioned and hoped for when they awarded Phoenix. This is a way to celebrate basketball in this region, and this area.”