The Wildcats did it, so why can’t the Suns?


Do Shaq and the Suns have time yet to run into a first-round matchup with the Lakers? (AP/Paul Connors)

Do Shaq and the Suns have time yet to run into a first-round matchup with the Lakers? (AP/Paul Connors)

When I was originally planning out what I would post during this two-day hole in the Suns’ schedule, I considered writing about how the fall of Suns basketball to the depths of lottery land mirrors the demise of Arizona basketball to NIT land.

I was going to write about how it’s kind of funny that Steve Kerr was there for the start of Arizona’s 24-year NCAA Tournament run as well as its first Final Four, and now he’s in Phoenix as the franchise’s general manager to oversee the end of the Suns’ four-year elite run.

Then something crazy happened when just a couple minutes into CBS’s selection show the once-mighty Wildcats were revealed as the No. 12 seed in the Midwest Regional.

In a state of shock and utter confusion, I high-fived a complete stranger and spent the next couple minutes wondering whether I was hallucinating.

Last year my palms were perfectly dry on Selection Sunday although I would have been devastated not to make an all-expenses-paid NCAA Tournament trip during my senior year with the Arizona Daily Wildcat. That’s because the Wildcats played the nation’s second-toughest schedule and boasted the nation’s No. 38 RPI; they were a lock, even with an 8-10 conference record a pair of losses to ASU.

This year, 13 schools that missed the tournament bettered Arizona’s No. 62 RPI, the worst of any at-large bid, including such powerhouses as Illinois State, Niagara and George Mason.

CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish was flabbergasted by the Wildcats’ inclusion into their 25th straight NCAA Tournament, as were a host of other analysts around the nation.

Of course, Arizona beat a No. 3 seed, a pair of No. 4 seeds and a No. 6 seed to make up for a porous road record and a 1-5 finishing kick that I thought was sure to eliminate the squad from going dancing.

But despite a string of conference tournament upsets and everything else working against them, here they are once again front and center, even if UA head coach Russ Pennell can hardly believe it.

You can argue that the Wildcats got the benefit of the doubt because they’ve been here 24 times before, an active record that’s now two behind North Carolina’s all-time record, and you can argue that if a less-accomplished basketball program like, say, ASU were in this situation, that school would be going NITing right about now.

At the end of the day all that matters is that Arizona is one of 65 school with postseason life.

What does this all mean for the Suns?

Well, Kerr’s current organization might share a little more in common with his beloved alma mater than just boasting an interim head coach and a year full of turmoil.

No, there will be no selection committee with the power that determines the Suns are more worthy of the No. 8 seed than the Mavericks based on their body of work and a couple of marquee wins over the Lakers and Spurs.

The Suns will actually have to win their way in, but if you would have asked me back on Black Thursday – a day in which Arizona dropped its fifth out of six games to fall shy of the 20-win plateau it seemingly needed for a bid and the Suns lost to the Cavs for their sixth-straight loss to fall six games out of the playoff race – I would have thought there’s a better chance of an eighth-seeded Golden State team knocking out a 67-win Dallas team two years ago.

Oh, wait, that happened, too.

Making up four games with 15 to play is still a monumental task, but after the Suns made up two games in a weekend, it doesn’t seem as impossible as it did Thursday night when LeBron James was defending two on none fast breaks.

It’s no secret that the Suns play the much more favorable schedule, as Dallas faces opponents with a .514 winning percentage the rest of the way not factoring in the Mavs’ April 5 showdown against Phoenix and the Suns face opponents with a winning percentage of .436 in their final 14 excluding the Mavs game, one of the easiest schedules in the NBA.

Nine of Dallas’ 14 are against playoff teams, in comparison to seven of 14 for the Suns, and both teams will host eight of those 14.

For the Suns to make the playoffs, first they will have to beat all of the teams that they should defeat. Theoretically at least, that should not be an issue because Gentry is 7-0 against losing teams since taking over.

Beating the good teams, of course, has been a completely different story, as Gentry boasts just that March 1 win over the Lakers in nine tries against playoff teams.

For a miracle run to take place, beating Dallas in Big D also is without question a must because that contest will basically represent three games in the standings, two for the differential between a win and a loss and the third because the tiebreaker will be up for grabs that day.

Dallas would win the head-to-head tiebreaker with a victory, but Phoenix – with three fewer conference losses in three fewer games – would finish with a better conference record if the team could find a way to tie the Mavs in the standings and would thus win the next tiebreaker if they split their four games.

Let’s assume the Suns take care of business against the teams they should beat and Dallas loses one of the two extra games it plays against good teams. That means if Phoenix finds a way to go 4-3 against the good teams it plays, the Suns would need the Mavs to go 7-5 against a remaining schedule of seven playoff teams and five losing teams.

If the Suns could find a way to go 5-2 against the good teams, which would mean the overall run of 15 of 17 would come to fruition, is it so much to expect the Mavs to do no worse than 8-4?

What should really excite Suns fans and sounds more reasonable every word I write is if Phoenix can find a way to whittle just a single game off the lead in the next two weeks before the showdown in Big D, which doesn’t sound crazy at all after they cut down two games last weekend.

At that point the deficit would be down to two, which would be good for the Suns because they finish with four patsies following a visit to New Orleans, whereas the Mavs play Utah, Houston and New Orleans twice in that time period. Anyone else think they’ll drop at least a couple?

John Hollinger’s vaunted Playing Odds believe it’s possible, giving the Suns a one in three shot of reaching postseason play. On Thursday night those odds felt more like one in 300.

And if none of those numbers impress you, then just remember this:

If the Arizona Wildcats can sneak into the NCAA Tournament with a 19-13 record and an RPI in the 60s, is it so crazy to think the Suns can still make the playoffs?

  • Mason

    I'd love to think that my suns will make the playoffs but it's just so hard to believe when you look at our defense. bleh.

  • Fred

    Your Suns are dead as a deadbolt lock.

    Your team is old and overrated. Nash and every other player on that team does not know how to play defense. Look at your team. REALLY, look at them.

    G. Hill, Shaq, J Rich, Barnes, Nash.

    That is a team full of old geezers.

    RIP Phoenix Suns. You were a favorite team of mine to watch when you had it going. But those days are loooooooong gone.

    Im thinking you fans wish you had J. Johnson, Fernandez, & Nate Robinson like you could have.

  • Brandon Haraway

    UA shouldn't have made it, and neither should the Suns.

    But I'm still hoping.

  • http://sean.photographykeepsakes.com Sean

    Agreed Michael. The numbers show that the Suns aren’t dead yet.

    I did a quick analysis last night of the remaining games of the playoff contenders. I projected that these teams would win their home games and lose their road games, except against the lower teams. The results show that the Suns may be as likely to catch Utah as they are Dallas. Utah has struggled on the road, especially this season – and they have road games left at Phoenix, Portland, Denver, New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio, and the Lakers.

    Looking at the schedules, I see the following keys for each of these 3 teams:

    Suns – obviously they must beat the teams they should. Besides that, their key games are: 3/25 (vs. Utah), 3/28 (@ Utah), and 4/5 (at Dallas). Those 2 road games will be HUGE in determining whether the Suns actually have a shot at the playoffs or not. If they can win those 2 Utah games, the schedule suggests that the Suns are likely to catch Utah, unless the Jazz really turn it around on the road.

    Jazz – Doing this analysis really surprised me, because my perception was that the Jazz are really jelling, and could be a big factor in the playoffs. But they have a lot of road games left against good teams, and they haven’t beaten anyone better than the Sixers or Pistons on the road this year. The key for Utah will be winning a road game or two against good teams. The 2 Suns games will be big in giving them security. All of Utah’s home games except 1 (3/24, Houston) are against non-contending teams they should beat.

    Mavs – using my projection formula above, the Mavs are actually safer than I thought. The main reason is that they have 9 home & 6 away games, and half of their away games are against lower teams (Indiana, Minny, Memphis). The Suns game is obviously big for Dallas. The other key will be winning games at home against teams that are good but not great. They have Detroit at home tonight, then Denver (3/27), and Miami (4/1). They also have home games left against Utah, New Orelans, and Houston. I’d be surprised if Dallas wins all those games because I don’t think they’re as good as those teams.

    I know that’s a lot of numbers and analysis…here’s the bottom line: the Suns still have some hope, and I think they may have as much hope of catching Utah as Dallas. But that’s why they play the games!

  • http://sean.photographykeepsakes.com Sean

    Fred,

    Of course we wish we had those guys. But we don’t. So we cheer on the team we have.

  • http://www.valleyofthesuns.com Michael Schwartz

    Sean,
    Great point about Utah. I didn’t even consider that a possibility while they were winning 12 straight, but now that they’ve lost three in a row on the road maybe we should consider it again. Utah’s schedule is brutal, but they are five games up and would almost certainly hold the conference record tiebreaker if it came to that. However, if the Suns beat the Jazz twice, that deficit is three, Phoenix has the tiebreaker, and with both teams’ remaining schedule you’d have to like the Suns’ chances. Damn, those two games against Utah will be huge.

  • Johnny

    I can tell you why not the Suns Michael… Because the Suns are NOT a good team. UofA at least showed they can beat good teams, what have the Suns showed since Amare went besides that they can score 140 points in a game against Golden State

  • http://sean.photographykeepsakes.com Sean

    Well Johnny, the Suns also beat the league-leading Lakers without Steve Nash. Would you say the Lakers are a good team?

    Look, the Suns are not a bad team. They’re not a top team like the past few years, but they’re still good. They have lots of talent, albeit aging talent. When they put it together, they show flashes. They can compete with the teams out West, especially those below San Antonio and LA.

  • http://morgamic.com/ Mike

    I think the Suns could beat a lot of teams in a 7-game series.

  • http://sean.photographykeepsakes.com Sean

    Michael-

    If the Suns can beat Utah in both games (a big "if") then Phoenix will hold the tiebreaker vs Utah.