Jesse Perry is living the junior college player's dream, and he knows it.
Less than a year after he was attending John A. Logan College in small-town Illinois, the junior forward is starting for an Arizona Wildcats team that is ranked in the top 10, with a chance to wrap up the Pac-10 championship this weekend and roll into the NCAA tournament with a respectable seed.
In addition, if the Wildcats do clinch the title this weekend, they would do so in storied Pauley Pavilion, which just happens to be the current home of Perry's juco buddy, Lazeric Jones, now the point guard at UCLA.
"From where I come from in junior college," Perry said, "I never expected to be in this position - in the top 10, starting, playing pretty good, a bunch of good guys on our team."
But the Wildcats also know the success can disappear quickly. After all, it was just over two weeks ago that the Wildcats needed triple-overtime to beat a rebuilding Cal team expected to be in the Pac-10's lower division, and they beat Washington by only a single point at home on Saturday.
"We've had two games in the last couple of weeks when we've played very hard, and we could have lost," UA coach Sean Miller said. "Sometimes in a season being able to get a close win can catapult you from being a good team into being a team that can do something special. You take those two games away from us, we're still fine and still playing for a lot but probably not in the situation we're in going to L.A."
Instead of being mired in a tie with an imposing pair of games to play at USC on Thursday and at UCLA on Saturday, the Wildcats hold a two-game lead over the Bruins and are three games ahead of Washington in the loss column. So if they beat both L.A. teams this weekend, the Wildcats would finish no lower than 14-4, and UCLA and Washington could finish no higher than 13-5.
The math is simple. But the weekend's games won't be.
"We haven't won anything yet," Miller said. "What we've done puts us in a position to do some special things over the next two weeks. Our ranking whether it's 25th or 30th or 10th, we're still playing for the same thing, and it can be taken from us very quickly. Our focus is about the Pac-10 title."
If Miller's experience as a player at Pittsburgh is any indication, winning the Pac-10 would be something the Wildcats would never forget.
"When you think back to your own experience, it's right there at the forefront of what you remember," said Miller, who helped Pitt win the 1988 Big East title. "So what we're trying to do is special. We don't take it for granted at all."
The Wildcats' track record this season suggests they won't. Arizona has generally been steady in potential letdown situations except for a 76-75 loss at Oregon State on Jan. 2, when the team spent a long New Year's weekend in Corvallis, Ore.
Keeping focus "is not easy to do, but one thing we have on our side is depth," Miller said. "Sometimes that fear of not playing as much as you want and the reality that you can be subbed out in a minute really helps keep players' attention.
"That's the one luxury that we've had. We've worked hard to develop it."
It also helps that the Wildcats appear to have strong team chemistry, even as Derrick Williams has morphed into a likely NBA lottery pick. The way Miller views it, Arizona's struggles last season en route to a 16-15 finish put perspective on things.
"When you go through something like we did a year ago and you have a lot of young players, you want to try to do it better," Miller said. "For about three months one of the themes I talked about was just trying to be better than we were a year ago, (saying) 'don't get too far ahead of ourselves.' That has much to do with how we are every day. Our team deserves credit for that."
The fact that Williams is unselfish and likeable, Miller said, also makes it easier. But Williams said, really, it's everyone.
"It's just the team chemistry," Williams said. "Off the court, most teams don't get along as well as we do. Most teams, some guys don't like each other and won't pass each other the ball. But we have a great chemistry, everybody likes each other. If it's Jamelle's (Horne) turn and he's getting the points, we'll give him the ball. Kevin (Parrom) or anybody. Nobody hates on each other."
• Williams said he practiced almost fully on Monday, though Miller said the sophomore forward would likely wear the same protective wrap over his sprained right pinkie for games that he has since Jan. 29.
"It will be to his advantage for him to play without it, and yet we're not going to do that until he's completely protected," Miller said.
• Miller said Sidiki Johnson would finish his senior year at a New York public high school after the UA signee left Oak Hill Academy for unspecified reasons. Miller did not expect Johnson would have eligibility issues.
"It's a family decision, and he's in good academic standing," Miller said. "It's not as if we necessarily worry about him qualifying. He's been a good student since ninth grade."
On StarNet: Read more on reporter Bruce Pascoe's blog at go.azstarnet.com/pascoe
• What: Arizona at USC
• When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday
• TV: Channel 58
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM