LAS VEGAS — Just an 18-year-old freshman who has yet to play in the Pac-12 tournament, Aaron Gordon may already know all he needs to know about it.
At least from an Arizona Wildcats perspective.
“I know he touched the ball,” Gordon said, grinning as he launched perhaps the one-liner of the season in the often-dry UA weekly news conferences. “That’s pretty much the one thing I know about the Pac-12 tournament.”
Gordon, of course, was referring to coach Sean Miller’s now-infamous postgame comments following a semifinal loss last season to UCLA, when he said he was assessed a technical foul for saying a UCLA player touched the ball when Mark Lyons was called for a turnover.
That technical foul — which officials actually assessed because Miller was out of his coaching box — became a national issue a week later when it was revealed that then-Pac-12 officials coordinator Ed Rush improperly tried beforehand to motivate his officials into more closely monitoring Miller and other coaches.
In turn, that controversy led to Rush’s resignation and a new Western conferences officials consortium headed by Bobby Dibler, who now oversees the Pac-12.
But in the record books, it all simply looks like this: another exit from the Pac-12 tournament before the Wildcats wanted to leave town.
Arizona hasn’t won the Pac-12 tournament since 2002, reaching the finals three times since then but losing every time, to Washington in 2005 and 2011, and to Colorado in 2012.
The loss to the Buffs in 2012 was especially tough for the Wildcats because they needed the win to get into the NCAA tournament field. Instead, they hosted eighth-seeded Bucknell in the NIT at home — and lost, with guard Kyle Fogg saying they “left a lot” back on the floor of the Staples Center in that game with Colorado.
When the Pac-12 tournament moved to Las Vegas last year, the Wildcats aimed to make up for an initially successful season that had turned slightly sour, with the Wildcats starting off 14-0 and then sliding into a three-way tie for second place in the Pac-12.
But they lost to UCLA for a third time in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals and were home by the time Oregon took the trophy the next day.
“We had a tough moment there last year, losing to UCLA for the third time in the semifinals,” Miller said. “I think that fuels our fire for this year, the players who were a part of last year’s team.”
The Wildcats may need all the fire they can get. On Thursday, they could face Utah, a team that probably must beat them to get into the NCAA tournament at-large bid conversation.
Also on their side of the bracket: Cal and Colorado, two teams that have skidded toward the edge of the NCAA bubble late in the season.
But guard Nick Johnson said the Wildcats have their own motivation.
“We feel like we still have things to prove,” he said. “We just want to continue building our body of work, with all of our conference wins away from home, protecting our homecourt, just keep on adding to that bag of wins and get ourselves the highest seed possible.”
Then there’s that recent history. Johnson has lived through both of UA’s last two Pac-12 tournament disappointments.
“We went there last year to win it,” Johnson said. “We felt as if we could get that one, kind of make up for what we didn’t do in the regular season, and it hurt us not to get it.”
But the disappointments go back further for the entire UA program.
Since winning the then-Los Angeles based event in 2002, the Wildcats also didn’t make it to the semifinals for four straight seasons (2007-10) and, way back in 2003, were subject to one of the tournament’s biggest-ever upsets when No. 8 UCLA and embattled coach Steve Lavin beat the top-seeded Wildcats in the quarterfinals.
It’s a history that Johnson finds surprising.
“It is a little bit,” he said. “Just looking at our tradition here, it is a little bit shocking that we haven’t won it (since 2002). My freshman year we lost to Colorado (in the championship game) and the year before, we lost to Washington on a last-second shot, so it’s not like we haven’t been there before. We just haven’t gotten over the hump.”
While Colorado made history by being the first Pac-12 team to win four games for the tournament title, the Wildcats will again be one of four teams to receive a first-round bye, meaning they can rest until facing the winner of today’s Utah-Washington game in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Miller said he’s hoping the Wildcats will take advantage of the bye and create the kind of postseason momentum he’s seen Louisville do in recent Big East tournaments, rolling into the NCAA tournament the following week.
“We want to try to win the tournament, but if we don’t, it’s not going to be because we didn’t take it as serious,” Miller said. “We want to play great basketball from this point on. … (But) I know this: We can play really well and not win the tournament because of how good our conference is.”