Wildcats earn 25th straight NCAA tourney bid
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Lute Olson started Arizona's NCAA tournament streak in 1985.
After interim coach Russ Pennell extended it to 25 straight years on Sunday, Olson called to congratulate him on keeping alive the nation's longest active streak.
"I kiddingly said, 'Hey, the streak's somebody else's problem now," Pennell said. "He said congratulations on that one. One of the things I told Coach O was, 'You've built a program that's even able to endure a couple of years after you're gone."
The Wildcats may have pulled off the tournament's first big upset: They made it.
Despite staggering down the stretch, the Wildcats (19-13) slipped in as a 12th seed in the Midwest Region. They will face fifth-seeded Utah (24-9) on Friday in Miami.
The selection capped a tumultuous season that began with Olson's abrupt and unexpected retirement last October. The Wildcats won seven straight games in one midwinter stretch but also had a deflating first-round loss to arch rival Arizona State in the Pac-10 tournament last week.
Then came Sunday, when Arizona's red-and-blue block "A" appeared on the official NCAA selection show, prompting shouts of joy throughout McKale Center.
"That moment that the (players) saw that, it was like everything they had gone through was worth it," Pennell said. "That moment, I'll never forget as long as I live, that elation that I saw on those kids' faces."
Pennell became the third coach to lead the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament in as many seasons. Olson did it two years ago, and interim coach Kevin O'Neill kept the streak alive after Olson missed 2006-07 on a personal leave of absence.
The Wildcats are two years shy of matching the all-time record -- North Carolina's run of 27 straight NCAA appearances from 1975-2001.
Arizona's streak appeared doomed as the Wildcats hit the skids, dropping five of their last six games. With each defeat, many in this basketball-mad city feared the streak would end.
Those fears grew when USC earned an automatic berth by winning the Pac-10 tournament, leading to a theory that the Trojans would snare the Pac-10's fifth bid and bump Arizona into the NIT. But the Pac-10 drew six berths.
Pennell said he thought Arizona deserved to be in, but he worried that a series of upsets in the conference tournaments might doom the Wildcats.
"When Mississippi State won (the SEC tourney) today, I thought it kind of cooked us," Pennell said. "But fortunately (the committee) looked at the whole season, and I think that was the most important thing."
Indeed, the selection committee gave the Wildcats credit for notable victories over Kansas, Gonzaga, UCLA and Washington, instead of focusing on Arizona's poor finish.
"We obviously were aware that they lost several games coming down the stretch," committee chairman Mike Slive said in a teleconference. "They were only 7-5 in the last 12 games. Obviously, it meant a lot to the committee that this team had a very strong resume ... with six wins in the top 50. It was important, and it helped Arizona offset the bottom of their schedule. Also, their losses were to some pretty good teams."
Slive wouldn't say whether the Wildcats were the last at-large team chosen since they and Wisconsin were the only at-larges seeded on the 12 line.
"We don't keep track of who's last," Slive said. "This is the most gutwrenching moment of five long days."
The Wildcats had plenty of flaws, including a 2-9 road record, with wins at lowly Oregon and Oregon State. But Slive said Arizona's typically stout schedule worked to its advantage.
"For me, it's the whole season," Slive said. "November and December are not an exhibition season. It's part of the body of work."
If the Wildcats beat the Utes in the opening round, they would face either fourth-seeded Wake Forest or 13th-seeded Cleveland State in the second round.
"We're thrilled and we hope to validate our being picked," Pennell said. "We're not just happy to be here. We'd like to stay a little while if we can."
AP Sports Writer Gregg Bell in Seattle contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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