SALT LAKE CITY — The Arizona Wildcats’ road to the Sweet 16 is actually a loop.
Just two miles from Staples Center, where they will appear Thursday against Ohio State, the Wildcats suffered arguably their worst loss of the season, 89-78, at USC on Feb. 27.
Then, thanks to the Pac-12’s more spread-out scheduling, the Wildcats had an extra day to sit around and think about it before facing UCLA on March 2. They could think about how the Trojans shot 61.1 percent from the field, think about what was wrong with their defense and think about how their season was slipping away after a 14-0 start.
Arizona (now 27-7) had already essentially cost itself the Pac-12 title by allowing Cal to shoot 65.2 percent in the second half of a Feb. 10 UA loss at McKale, but the USC game sent them over the edge.
So they talked and refocused and, while the results did not immediately show it, believed they became a better team that weekend.
“I think it was the L.A. trip. The USC trip,” guard Nick Johnson said. “When we lost to Cal, we knew something was a little off. On the L.A. trip we practiced a little bit better and UCLA game we (defended better) and ever since then in practice really we’ve locked in and really focused on it.”
UA lost at UCLA by five points but coach Sean Miller said he left that game with a different feeling, and he later noted that the following week was critical because the Wildcats had a full five days of defensive-minded practice to prepare for ASU, which they beat 73-58 on the final day of the regular season.
While Arizona still has let up defensively since then in spurts, the Wildcats say their all-around effort has been consistently better since then. They played well at the Pac-12 tournament and coasted into Thursday’s NCAA West Regional semifinals with easy wins over Belmont and Harvard at EnergySolutions Arena.
Check out three players have helped energize the Cats down the stretch, in Monday's Arizona Daily Star.