Arizona's hopes hinge on Pac-12 tourney title
LOS ANGELES — It seems clear as a tax collector’s conscience: Arizona must win the Pac-12 tournament to make its second straight NCAA tournament, at least at this stage of the vetting process. Coach Sean Miller and his players said as much after an upset loss at Arizona State on Sunday.
“Our objective is to win three games in three days,” Miller told a media gathering Tuesday.
It got more difficult Wednesday, when freshman point guard Josiah Turner was suspended indefinitely, further shortening an already short roster. It is Turner's second suspension of the season. He previously served a one-game suspension when the Wildcats played at Florida in December.
In announcing the discipline, Miller said he was “disappointed in Josiah for his actions. Unfortunately, this suspension comes at a time of great excitement and opportunity for our team. However, the standards of our program will not be compromised under any circumstances.”
Although Turner’s suspension further thins an already thin roster and leaves UA without its principle ball-handler, the Wildcats (21-10, 12-6) enter their tournament opener Thursday against recently roused UCLA in Staples Center with a number of reasons to believe. UCLA beat USC, 55-40, Wednesday.
Guards Kyle Fogg and Brendon Lavender are playing some of their best basketball as their senior seasons wind down.
Forwards Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry have provided a consistent inside presence all season, each with 10 double-doubles, even as they are undersized in almost every game and will be again against UCLA.
If freshman guard Nick Johnson and freshman big man Angelo Chol can play well, Arizona could still make a move, although the lack of depth means than Jordin Mayes may be needed for longer minutes than he has been able to provide since suffering a stress reaction in his left ankle a month ago.
“They have to be consistent,” Miller said when asked Tuesday about his freshmen, before Turner’s suspension was known.
“The bigger the game, the bigger the stage, sometimes freshmen in their first time through are different in their personality. We need those guys to play together, play hard and stay on course. To take care of the basketball and be solid. That’s really important for us to have any success.”
Consistent strong play has marked Fogg in the last month, culminating when he was selected to the 10-man Pac-12 All-Conference team and the five-man all-defensive team in balloting by the coaches.
Fogg was the Pac-12 player of the week twice in the last month, starting with Arizona’s sweep in the Bay Area in which he tied a season-high with 23 points at California, a number he equaled against ASU. He has averaged 17.3 points a game in his last nine, and also has had games of 12, nine, 10 and nine rebounds in that run.
He will tie Jason Gardner’s school record of 136 games if he plays against UCLA.
“I’m a huge Kyle Fogg fan,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill, who faced Fogg two weeks ago. “He’s tough and hard-nosed. He’s had a great year at both ends of the floor.”
Lavender has been a very valuable sixth man on a team that lost much of its depth when swingman Kevin Parrom was lost for the season with a broken right foot and guard Jordin Mayes missed most of a month with a stress reaction in his left foot.
Lavender, a 6-foot-5 spot-up shooter, tied a career high with 18 points and set a career high with six 3-pointers (he attempted eight) against Arizona State. He leads the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting (36 of 72, 50 percent) in conference games despite playing only 18.6 minutes a game.
Lavender seems the likely candidate to replace Turner in the starting lineup after both Johnson and Turner struggled against Arizona State. The pair was a combined 2 for 11 from the field — each had one field goal — with eight rebounds, five assists and seven turnovers.
Johnson, at the same time, has shown flashes of the skill set that made him a top recruit. He had a career-high 20 points to go with four rebounds and four assists in a loss at Washington the week before. He scored 18 points against Utah.
UCLA will provide a stiff challenge. The Bruins’ victory over USC was their third straight since the program was the subject of an embarrassing national magazine story in the middle of last week.
The UA split the season series against UCLA, falling 65-58 in Los Angeles on Jan. 5 before using a late 14-4 run to overtake and hold off the Bruins, 65-63, on Feb. 25. With center Josh Smith and the Wear twins, UCLA provides interior matchup problems against most Pac-12 teams, and the UA is no exception. Smith did not play in the game in Los Angeles, but the 6-foot-10 Wears combined for 55 points and 30 rebounds in the two meetings.
The Wildcats will have to return to the defense it played in the first 17 conference games after giving up season-high 87 points to Arizona State, which shot 60 percent from the field. Some shots may have been fortunate to drop, such as Jonathan Gilling’s banked 3-pointer 87 seconds into the game, but the Wildcats were not pleased with their general effort.
“We had a real hard time keeping the ball in front of us,” Miller said.
"We weren't guarding like we usually do or like we have in practice all week or like we have through 17 of the Pac-12 games,” Fogg said.
Even after that anomaly, the UA enters the tournament ranked No. 1 in conference play in field goal percentage defense (40.8 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (28.1 percent). The Wildcats are second in scoring margin, at plus-6.7 points a game, trailing only California.