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?