UArizona’s Bennedict Mathurin dribbles through traffic at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on March 1, 2022. (Photo by Lauren Lively/Cronkite News)
LOS ANGELES – March Madness is around the corner and the Arizona Wildcats are hungry to cement their names in NCAA history as champions of the 2022 basketball season.
“The job is not finished, we got the Pac-12 tournament and then March Madness next, once we get the ring for March Madness, then we can celebrate,” sophomore guard Bennedict Mathurin said Tuesday night after Arizona beat USC 91-71.
Pac-12 tournament play begins next Wednesday, but the Wildcats have their eyes set on the biggest fish: a second national title. At the moment, they’re projected to be a No. 1 seed come March Madness, according to bracketology expert Jerry Palm, and are considered one of the favorites to win it all, along with Gonzaga, Baylor and Auburn.
After missing last year’s March Madness tournament because of a self-imposed postseason ban in the wake of a recruiting scandal, the Wildcats want nothing more than to bring that national champion trophy back to Tucson – 25 years after their national title in 1997.
“A lot of people did not anticipate this, outside of our group,” coach Tommy Lloyd told the media after Tuesday’s win.
Lloyd is new to UArizona, replacing Sean Miller, who was fired in 2021. Lloyd spent 20 years as an assistant at Gonzaga, a perennial March Madness powerhouse.
Lloyd echoed the expectations of others – no one saw the Wildcats ranked this high in the Associated Press poll at No.2, let alone possibly being one of four top seeds in March Madness. The Wildcats are excelling on both sides of the ball scoring 84.7 points per game, which is third in the nation, and holding opponents to 66.8 points per game, according to the NCAA. That margin of 17.9 points has set the team on course to March Madness.
“The next big opportunity is the conference tournament,” Lloyd said. “We will get revved up and ready to roll for that and we won’t look past that.”
The Wildcats have two final games, against Stanford and California, but their decisive win over USC clinched the regular season crown and earned them the top seed along with a first round bye in the conference tournament.
Arizona hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2018, when the roster included Deandre Ayton, who later was drafted No. 1 overall and now stars for the NBA Phoenix Suns. Ayton was a force, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds per game.
This season, Mathurin is scoring 17 points per game and has been the top player for the Wildcats. Against the Trojans, he led the team in multiple categories, with 19 points, 6 assists and 3 steals.
“I love winning and hate losing, the best thing is when you go to bed is winning,” he said Tuesday night.
Mathurin will need more restful nights ahead if he wants to keep Arizona playing deep into March to win it all.