Wildcats looking for extra effort for stretch run

TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona’s high-wire act of a season continues.

A misstep here or there and it’s among the also-rans.

So will it be upper class or middle class to end the week?

That’s how it feels – even for a team that is 23-4 and 11-4 in the Pac-12 Conference. That’s why Arizona coach Sean Miller called this week a “big week” as 11th-ranked Arizona travels to Los Angeles to face Southern California (12-15, 7-7) on Wednesday and then UCLA (20-7, 10-4) on Saturday.

Then it’s a return home to face arch-rival Arizona State next week before the postseason begins.

“I don’t know if you have to win every game or not,” Miller said on Monday. “That’s not necessarily for us to decide, but we’re going to try to be at our best moving forward.”

“It’s a three-game season,’’ Miller said.

Despite its struggles and inconsistencies, Arizona remains in the mix for the Pac-12 regular-season title. To close the deal, however, it has no choice but to play its best. The Wildcats, Oregon and UCLA all have four conference defeats, California has five, and Arizona State and Colorado have six.

“There’s going to be a bunch of teams bunched together, and our conference is like that this year just because of the extraordinary quality of our league,” Miller said. “We have five teams and maybe six that could be part of the NCAA tournament. Maybe seven or eight that could be part of the NIT.”

But that’s another discussion for another time. Now it’s about hard-earned victories and effort levels that show a hint of hungry desperation. Miller was hoping for that on Saturday against lowly Washington State but didn’t get it in the second half. And he let everyone know about it, despite a comfortable margin of victory.

Two days later, his tone was a bit more subdued in terms of his team’s effort and what he expects. Forty-eight hours of reflection and perspective brought him to that point.

“It’s not as easy to play with incredible effort in late February, especially if you are winning a game and in your mind you’re going to win the game,” he said. “But the teams that are going to be there in the end, the ones we all admire are the ones that don’t do that (let down).”

Arizona had little trouble with USC earlier this year in Tucson, whipping the Trojans 74-50 by holding the Trojans to 28 percent shooting. That’s the kind of effort Miller didn’t see against Washington State on Saturday and implied that without it, the Wildcats would be in for a long weekend. That decisive victory immediatedly preceded a four-game winning streak for the Trojans under interim coach Bob Cantu.

Miller continued to say his team isn’t talented enough offensively to skimp on defensive effort. And his players should understand that by now. There’s not enough “firepower to really finish off the season off like we want to unless we are a great defensive team,” he said.

And that will be the key to how Arizona fares this weekend and the rest of the way.