Derrick Williams was unquestionably the star of Arizona’s last conference championship. But in the final moments of the pivotal game in the Wildcats’ run to the 2010-11 title, he was on the bench.
Williams fouled out in regulation of a triple-overtime game at California, while MoMo Jones had a career-high 27 points full of clutch shooting and Kevin Parrom another gritty 25 to somehow push the Wildcats past the Bears 107-105. The win gave Arizona a game-and-a-half lead in first place, a much-needed cushion for when they were swept later in the month in Los Angeles.
“The difference between winning it and not is sometimes just individual players making plays at critical times,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “Our game at Cal (in 2010-11) could have been a game we could have easily lost, but for whatever reason it came our way.”
Junior Nick Johnson has seen things go the other way twice already. During his freshman year of 2011-12, the Wildcats struggled without Williams and Jones and finished two games out of first.
Last season, the Wildcats charged into league play at 12-0, but lost six league games and finished in a three-way tie for second, a game behind first-place UCLA. A four-point loss at Oregon and two losses to UCLA kept the title out of their hands.
“I’ve never won a Pac-12 championship,” Johnson said, “and we’ve been one game off, so I’m just trying to do that extra little bit to help us get that game.”
While the top-ranked Wildcats have been dominant enough during the nonconference season to suggest that they could win the Pac-12 by more than just a game this time, the conference may be better than at any time in Miller’s UA years.
Oregon and Colorado appear serious challengers for the conference title, while UCLA has one of the league’s most talented starting fives. ASU has the dangerous combination of dynamic point guard Jahii Carson and shot-blocking whiz Jordan Bachynski, while injuries may have knocked Stanford and California down only slightly.
Even Oregon State (with Pac-12 scoring leader Roberto Nelson and NBA prospect Eric Moreland returning from suspension), Washington (with veteran gunner C.J. Wilcox) and Utah (with a revamped roster) all have dimensions that suggest they can win big games, too.
So maybe every game, every little thing, will matter. Here are five things the Wildcats may need to do in conference play, which will begin tonight when Arizona hosts Washington State.
1. Stay the course
Really, if the Wildcats can beat Duke in New York City, win at Michigan and beat up a number of fairly respectable other nonconference opponents, you could argue they don’t need to change much of anything.
But that may not be as easy as it sounds. Miller has said individual thinking can creep into players’ minds as a season goes on, which was the case last season when the Wildcats lost their edge in conference play and didn’t find their rhythm again until late in the season.
But Johnson says Arizona has an ideal weapon to keep up UA’s offensive balance and defensive intensity this time: point guard T.J. McConnell, who not only brings a pass-first mentality to his position but an unselfishness that teammates and Miller alike say is infectious.
“This year, we have a perfect team to stay with that principle,” Johnson said. “We’re long and athletic on defense and Coach said he’s not going to let slip … as far as containing on man (to-man defense) and help. And on offense, it’s just understanding that people are going to have their nights, 1-7 (players in the rotation), and I think we have the man at the point (McConnell) to really facilitate that.”
2. Find a balance
But while McConnell is the heart of the Wildcats’ offense, and a rugged defender on the other side of the ball, he also needs to balance that offense with scoring of his own.
“One of the great characteristics about T.J. is that he doesn’t worry about himself a whole lot. He’s really team-centered,” Miller said. Players “want to play with him because he cares so much about what you want a point guard to care about — and that’s distributing the ball.”
While McConnell has a 3.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, it bothers Miller that McConnell has taken just 24 three-point attempts, hitting a third of them, even though he shot 41.6 percent from beyond the arc over two seasons at Duquesne.
“I will say moving forward that T.J. is too good a three-point shooter to not shoot one or two” per game, Miller said. “He’s become so consumed in making one more pass and looking for his teammates that sometimes what he doesn’t realize is that the other team is taking him for granted. He’s an excellent shooter … and for him to pass up good three-point shots, that doesn’t make our team as good as we can be.”
3. Keep developing guards
Because freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have already proven they can play both forward spots, the Wildcats have enough versatility to cover for most any foul or injury issues up front.
If center Kaleb Tarczewski is out, as he was with a sprained ankle for UA’s past two games, Miller simply scoots everyone up — with Brandon Ashley at center, Gordon at power forward and Hollis-Jeffeson at small forward. Johnson can also scoot over to small forward and Matt Korcheck is available to help briefly inside if needed.
But the Wildcats don’t have that many options in the backcourt, especially if Gabe York and Jordin Mayes can’t help much. York has mostly succeeded in a much more prominent seventh-man role, while averaging 41.7 percent from three-point range, but Mayes’ minutes and production have fallen off in his senior year.
Then again, maybe that’s a minor issue for a team that has four rotation players making 38 percent or better from long range.
“They’ve shot it better, and that was the biggest question mark,” said Don MacLean, a Pac-12 Networks analyst. “I guess the one thing you could say (is a question mark) is guard depth. Is Gabe York going to be consistent? Can you get something from Jordin Mayes?”
4. Respect everyone
While Arizona has developed a thick skin on the road under Miller, winning more true road games since his 2009 arrival than any other conference team, the Wildcats can’t let up this season. Just about any of their road games could be trouble, though UA will not make the Washington trip because of the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule.
“Arizona’s still the team to beat, but I don’t think they’re going to go through it unbeaten,” Pac-12 Networks analyst Ernie Kent said. Arizona’s “new guys have to go through the conference race now. They beat Duke on a neutral court and won at Michigan, and that’s a good example of what you face in the conference. But how do you deal with eight games of that (in conference play)?”
One solution: Make sure they win all their games at McKale Center, as the Wildcats did in 2010-11. If Arizona does so at home, they can probably afford at least three losses on the road and still win the conference.
Plus, as they found while snipping the nets after a win over Oregon on March 5, 2011, that feels pretty good.
“We always want to protect our court,” Johnson said. “If we can get every game at home this year, that’s something we deserve to get our fans because they support us every single day, and that sets you up for winning the conference.
“As far as the road, we want to (go undefeated), but we know it’s difficult because of the atmosphere and the familiarity that everyone has. But I’m not circling a date on the calendar and saying, ‘Oh, we might lose this.’ You’ve gotta go in like you’re winning every game. Maybe it happens. Maybe it doesn’t.”
5. Find a way
They may lose players to foul trouble or injury. They will be expected to lose games, whether it’s in Oregon, Colorado or Los Angeles. As their shaky performance against UNLV showed, Arizona could even slip up sometime at home.
The key will be what happens next. Will the Wildcats fracture slightly as they did during the middle of last season, losing their swagger and confidence and rhythm?
Or, as they found on that long night in Berkeley, Calif., three seasons ago, can they transform the tough moments into mere speedbumps?
Ultimately that could be the key to a Pac-12 title.
“Every team in this conference is going to face adversity. They haven’t hit any yet,” Kent said. “It’s so far, so good. But … with every team waiting on you, that’s going to be hard. Arizona is going to get everyone’s best shot.
“How they handle that, night in and night out, that’s the question.”