TUCSON, Ariz. – For Arizona to win the national championship, it will need to win six consecutive games over three weekends.
But first things first. And that’s the Pac-12 Conference tournament. To be successful there, the Wildcats will need to win three intense games on three consecutive days — an ideal tuneup for what’s to come.
“It’s very difficult to do,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
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But one of the 12 Pac-12 teams will do so, and there’s no reason to doubt that Arizona, 24-6 overall, has what it takes to get it done. The resume says so: 14 consecutive wins to start the season. The resume also says otherwise. Since its glorious start, the Wildcats have gone 10-6. They are a mere 4-4 since reaching the 20-victory plateau at 20-2.
Tepid play has been the norm lately. But …
“Anything can happen in March,” Miller said.
And it usually does. In fact, March has been a good month for the Wildcats dating back to 1997, when they made an improbable run to the national title.
Since then, Arizona is 64-34 in the month, including 28-12 (.700) in the NCAA tournament. Under Miller, UA is 12-7 in March. And the Wildcats go goes into the postseason on a positive note, beating Arizona State on Saturday 73-58.
“I loved the way we played on Saturday; I believe our team has a lot left in the tank,” Miller said on his radio show on Monday. “It’s not as if we are limping to the finish line or fracturing from within. The opposite is true with our team.”
Miller said great players step up in March. “Teams of significance are remembered with what they do in March,” he said. “We want to finish strong.”
But before Arizona gets to the NCAA tournament, it must first try to get through the slippery slope that is the conference tournament, perhaps the toughest in memory due to the parity that has emerged in the conference. Nine of the 12 teams played .500 or better in conference play. And the three bottom-feeders (Oregon State, Washington State and Utah) went 5-1 against upper-division teams in the final week of the regular season.
“There are no givens,” Miller said.
Miller compared the conference to the Big Ten, one he said earned the right to be called the best in college basketball.
“If you look at their top six teams, it looks very similar to the Pac-12,” Miller said. “We have one of the best conferences in the country. It’s a quality league.”
He hopes that as tough as playing in the regular season was, it helped the team get “hardened for March.”
He hopes his team has emerged hungry yet humbled — ready to play with a chip on it shoulder and something to prove.
“I’d like to think we do have a team that is hungry to enter Vegas and accomplish something,” Miller said. “We want to be able to go to Vegas and be there as long as possible.”
Arizona’s opening opponent will be the winner of Wednesday’s game between Oregon State and Colorado.
Colorado figures to be the scarier matchup. Arizona struggled to a controversial overtime victory over the Buffaloes in Tucson, after Sabatino Chen’s 3-point shot was disallowed in regulation. Colorado easily prevailed in the rematch, winning 71-58 and controlling matters for three quarters of the game.
No matter the opponent, a key will be Arizona’s ability to get out in transition and score in excess of 70 points. The Wildcats are 2-6 in the conference tourney since 2002 when failing to break 70.
“When you see us in transition it’s because we’re playing really good defense,” Miller said. “It’s hard to be really fast in transition when the other team is scoring on you or you are fouling. Teams, in March, are more organized and get back. When you can get those easy baskets and dunks and get to the rim, it’s because you’re playing defense.
“That’s when our team is at its best, and our team knows that.”