The Arizona Wildcats basketball team is coming off a big senior day where it whipped its in-state rival, Arizona State Sun Devils, by 15 points to cap off a season sweep.
Heading into the Pac-12 Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, Nev., the Wildcats are the No. 4 seed and thus have a first-round bye into the quarterfinals. They will play the winner of Colorado and Oregon State on Thursday, March 14 at 2:30 p.m. PT.
The first-round matchup between No. 5 Colorado and No. 12 Oregon State should be a mere tune-up for Colorado, but stranger things have happened. The Beavers closed out the regular season with a stunning six-point victory over the Buffaloes in Boulder on March 9. Colorado had also lost to a Utah team earlier in the season that was 1-7 in the Pac-12.
Buffs coach Tad Boyle and the Sabatino Chen are still stinging from their Pac-12 opening loss to Arizona when Chen’s buzzer-beating three-pointer that would have beaten then No. 3 Arizona was waved off. Colorado made the ‘Cats pay dearly when they visited Boulder, holding the Wildcats to a season-low 58 points.
This matchup could equal disaster for coach Sean Miller and the Arizona squad and losing in the quarterfinals could have an adverse effect to the ‘Cats seeding going into the NCAA Tournament.
On the positive side of the ball, the Wildcats have won four of the past six and are a perfect 3-0 at neutral sites this year. They cruised through the Maui Invitational beating Eastern Tennessee and Miami (FL) by an average of 19.5 points. The loss by Miami was only the second in the Hurricanes’ first 25 games. They went on to beat No. 17 San Diego State in the final seconds on a Nick Johnson block.
If the Wildcats are to survive the Buffalo stampede, the road doesn’t get any easier. The semifinal round on Friday at 6 p.m. PT would be against the winner of the UCLA quarterfinal. The Bruins meet the winner of Arizona State and Stanford.
The Bruins and Wildcats were picked to be preseason favorites in the conference but the Bruins were the clear victors, sweeping the Wildcats by an average of 12 points. The Wildcats need to hope for an upset in the semifinals as they haven’t lost to Stanford or Arizona State this year.
Provided that the ‘Cats win in the semifinal round and advance to the final, their most likely opponent will be the Pac-12 “giant killer,” Cal Golden Bears. The Bears have won 9 of their past 11 games including wins over UCLA, Arizona in Tucson and a sweep of Oregon.
Looking back, winning the Conference Tournament isn’t necessarily a harbinger of good things. The conference tournament championship has eluded them since 2002, when they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tourney. They reached the Elite Eight in 2005 and 2011, but of course, they were the regular season champions those years.
The two deepest runs for the Wildcats came in 1997 and 2001, when they reached the NCAA Tournament Finals. These were years when they didn’t win either the regular season title or conference tournament title.
If history tells us anything, it’s that if Arizona wants to go far in the NCAA tourney, their best bet is not to win the Pac-12 Tournament.
Although, I don’t think it would be beneficial to Coach Miller’s blood pressure.