Arizona takes aim at first Pac-12 tourney title since 2002
TUCSON, Ariz. — The Pac-12 Conference tournament has been played 17 times.
Arizona, the undisputed marquee program of the conference, has gone into the tournament as regular-season champs seven times but has emerged as tournament champion just four times.
Now comes another chance at a dual championship for the Wildcats (28-3), who have a chance to parlay the tournament championship into a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"Being able to win both says a lot how hard it is," Arizona coach Sean Miller said on Tuesday in preparation for what Arizona hopes is a three-game, three-victory stretch at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. "It’s been a while since we’ve won it."
That’s putting it mildly. It’s been 13 years since Arizona cut down the nets at the Pac-12 tourney. The current Wildcats were still in elementary school. For their fans, it seems like another lifetime ago.
Miller has been through five of these, and three times they’ve lost in the finals — by a combined eight points. Last year, Arizona fell to UCLA 75-71 in what has been described as an epic battle.
"We’ve played really well," Miller said. "In some cases the other team just played better. Last year was an example of that."
The tournament could be a prelude of what’s to come for Arizona as it prepares for the NCAA tournament. Miller said each game up to this point offers lessons for this weekend and beyond.
Arizona’s postseason journey begins Thursday afternoon against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Washington State and California. The Wildcats finished the regular season strong — eight consecutive wins — but they’ve learned along the way that their talent can’t make up for inferior effort, as was the case in losses to UNLV, Oregon State and Arizona State.
"What makes us so special is our collective effort defensively, and we can’t lose that," Miller said.
A tournament championship won’t guarantee a No. 1 seed for Arizona — Villanova, Wisconsin, Duke and Virginia are all in the running to join unbeaten Kentucky as a top seed, depending on the outcome of this weekend’s games.
Miller said he’s more concerned that the team enters the postseason playing at its best — which seems to be the case heading into the Pac-12 tourney.
"If you watched us recently, you could make the argument that coming into this tournament maybe we are," Miller said. "We will see how it goes this week."
Miller downplayed any notion that Arizona will gain any extra motivation from having its players passed over in voting for Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year.
Guard T.J. McConnell was thought to be a leading candidate for player of the year (won by Oregon’s Joseph Young), and forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was considered a strong candidate for top defensive player (won by Oregon State’s Gary Payton II).
McConnell described his reaction to the vote as "disappointing, but others deserved it too. … The right decision was made. A lot of people deserved the award."