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'Real chance' Kerr Kriisa could play in Arizona’s NCAA Tournament opener

Sunday’s reveal of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket had its controversies, but there was no debate where the University of Arizona would be placed.

After defeating UCLA 84-76 Saturday for the Wildcats’ eighth Pac-12 Tournament title, Arizona (31-3, 18-2 Pac-12) earned a No. 1 seed in the South Region of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Coach Tommy Lloyd became only the third coach ever to accomplish this feat in his first season, joining North Carolina’s Bill Guthridge (1998) and Indiana State’s Bill Hodges (1979). It is also the first time since 2014 the Wildcats enter March Madness as one of the top seeds and seventh time overall.

Arizona will play the winner of a First Four matchup between No.16 seeds Wright State and Bryant. Both the Raiders (21-13, 15-7 Horizon) and Bulldogs (22-9, 15-2-1 NEC) made the tournament field after coming out on top of their respective conference tournaments. After a night game in Dayton, Ohio, either Wright State or Bryan will then travel to San Diego, California to face the top-seeded Wildcats.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to continue to make a mark, so we’re gonna attack it,” Lloyd said in a press conference after finding out his team’s placement on Sunday. “We’re going for it, and we’re gonna come out and play with a bunch of energy and, hopefully, a bunch of swag and have some fun.”

Arizona may be entering the tournament short-handed. Sophomore guard Kerr Kriisa left the team’s Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal win over Stanford with a sprained right ankle and has not played since. Lloyd did express optimism, though, in Sunday’s press conference, saying “there’s a real chance (Kriisa) will play” in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

If Kriisa can return at full strength for the Wildcats, experts believe Arizona has a real chance of making it to the Final Four at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans and even winning the second national title in program history. CBS analyst Seth Davis picked Lloyd’s Wildcats to defeat Gonzaga and coach Mark Few in the national championship game, whom Lloyd worked under for the past 22 seasons.

As gratifying as that would be, Lloyd is focused on the task at hand – preparing for his team’s matchup with its to-be-determined opponent.

“I’ve been in these (one-versus-16 seed) games; they’re no cakewalk,” Lloyd said. “Teams that are making the NCAA Tournament as the 14,15, and 16 seeds, they’re on a roll. They just won their conference tournament, and they’re feeling really good about themselves.”

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After taking down Northern Kentucky for the Horizon League Championship, Wright State secured its fourth bid to March Madness in program history and enters the NCAA Tournament on a hot streak. The Raiders have won five games in a row and six of their last seven. They also have the conference’s third and fourth-best scorers, Tanner Holden (19.8 points per game) and Grant Basile (18.5).

Who leads Division I in scoring? Well, that would be Bryant’s Peter Kiss (25.1). In fact, Kiss has finished with 30 or more points 10 times this season. His most recent came when he scored 34 points in the Bulldogs’ win over Wagner in the Northeastern Conference Championship to secure Bryant’s first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.

While Lloyd acknowledges either opponent would be comparable against his Wildcats, he’s not focusing on what March Madness is best known for – unlikely upsets. Since the NCAA Tournament’s inception in 1939, 16 seeds are 1-143 all-time against their top-seeded foes. That one win occurred when then No. 16 UMBC throttled No. 1 Virginia, 74-54, during the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

“We’re not even going to talk about it,” Lloyd said in response to a question about the Ramblers upsetting the Cavaliers four years ago. “Here’s the deal: we’re in attack mode. That’s it. … What are we protecting? We haven’t done anything. The Pac-12 regular season is done. The Pac-12 Tournament is done. We don’t start out on the scoreboard 8-0 or 12-0 because we won those. So it’s 0-0, us against Wright State or Bryant, and we’re gonna go for it.”

If Arizona is going to end its 25-year drought without a national championship, then Lloyd and company will have a difficult road ahead of them. Assuming they avoid a disastrous upset in the first round, the Wildcats would then face either No. 8 Seton Hall or No. 9 TCU for their second game in San Diego. Win that game, and Arizona would then go against No. 4 Illinois once again (the Wildcats won the first matchup earlier this season 83-79), No. 5 Houston, No. 12 UAB or No. 13 Chattanooga in the Sweet 16 in San Antonio, Texas.

If Arizona survives and advances to the Elite Eight, then it would play one of the other eight teams in the South Region. Those include No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Tennessee (the Volunteers defeated the Wildcats 77-73 in Knoxville), No. 6 Colorado State, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 10 Loyola Chicago, No. 11 Michigan, No. 14 Longwood and No. 15 Delaware. If Lloyd brings Arizona to its first Final Four appearance since 2001, he would surpass Guthridge’s 34 wins, the most by a first-year head coach.

Arizona is one of three Pac-12 teams to receive a bid to this year’s NCAA Tournament. UCLA, the No. 4 seed in the East region, will square off against No. 13 Akron on Thursday in Portland, while its in-state rival USC, the No. 7 seed in the Midwest region, will face No. 10 Miami on Friday in Greenville, S.C.. The Wildcats’ Friday matchup with either Wright State or Bryant will tip-off at 4:27 p.m. MST on truTV.

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Wesley Johnson/Cronkite News

Arizona guard Justin Kier showed he could step in for the injured Kerr Kriisa during the conference tournament. Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd said Kriisa could be available in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.