CORVALLIS, Ore. — If there’s a hangover — or at least a mental hiccup — in the Arizona Wildcats’ season, it happens this week.
Just two days after the Wildcats finished running the table at McKale Center, clinching the Pac-12 regular-season title, high-fiving their way through the Zona Zoo and snipping the nets … they boarded a jet for Oregon.
Then, after a night of sleep and a day of rest in the wet Willamette Valley, they were scheduled to huddle up tonight on the floor of Oregon State’s creaky Gill Coliseum, before a less-than-capacity crowd, and attempt to play a basketball game.
For what? Arizona already clinched the Pac-12, and the Wildcats even have some breathing room for capturing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Perhaps more important, they are all but locked into an NCAA tournament path through San Diego and Anaheim, Calif., where Arizona-based fans and SoCal alums alike can create near-homecourt advantages to best help the Wildcats reach the Final Four.
That’s all out there. They can see it, if they want to.
But they’ll try not to. Arizona has built its 27-2 record on consistency, on a foundation of defense and rebounding. They’ve lost only two close games in the wake of Brandon Ashley’s season-ending injury and don’t want to let up now.
“We’re going to play as if we were fighting for the Pac-12 championship … because if you take your eyes off of that, you’ll be vulnerable,” UA coach Sean Miller said.
“Oregon State is always difficult to play there, and Oregon is playing for a lot, and they’re playing excellent basketball right now. That trip’s always difficult for us, and I’m sure it’ll be difficult for us this time.”
If so, here are five sources of motivation the Wildcats can turn to:
1. Look out for No. 1. A sweep this week will keep the Wildcats in line for not only a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, but the No. 1 overall seed. While there’s a subtle difference, it does mean that the Wildcats will be given every possible advantage, most notably the weakest-possible opponents for their first (a 16 seed) and second (an eight or nine seed) games.
So instead of needing six wins to capture a national title, the Wildcats will really only need five, with the ability to coast and play subs heavily for a potential first-game blowout.
Miller says he doesn’t know what kind of an advantage a No. 1 seed would have, since he hasn’t coached at top-seeded team yet, but an easy game or two can’t hurt, considering the Wildcats’ still-slim margin for error with injuries or foul trouble to key players.
2. Exorcise some demons. Arizona was picked to win the Pac-12 last season, and they looked every bit the part during a 14-0 start.
Then they lost their mojo in Oregon.
They lost 70-66 to the Ducks, with Nick Johnson turning the ball over in the final seconds, unable to fully make up for Oregon’s 21-3 run in the first half.
Two weeks later, the Wildcats struggled at home in a loss to UCLA and finished in a second-place tie. They lost to the Bruins three times.
Although the Wildcats beat Oregon State 80-70 last season up the road in Corvallis, Gill Coliseum historically hasn’t always been real friendly to them.
They lost the first two times Miller took them there, most notably on Jan. 2, 2011, when Jared Cunningham’s “Kiss the Sky” dunk put a signature on a 76-75 OSU win over the eventual Elite Eight-bound Wildcats.
Except for UA’s 76-54 win over OSU last month at McKale, Beavers coach Craig Robinson said, “I’ve always felt we historically match up pretty well with Arizona.”
3. Play the spoiler. Not only will this week feature the final home games for a number of key players at both OSU and Oregon, but the Beavers and Ducks are also playing with significant postseason implications.
For Oregon, a win over the Wildcats would plant the resurgent Ducks firmly inside the NCAA tournament bubble, while the tournament committee just might raise an eyebrow if Oregon State somehow swept UA and ASU.
The Beavers are 15-13 overall and 7-9 in the Pac-12, with an RPI of 105, numbers that put them firmly out of consideration. Even Robinson said Tuesday that the Beavers probably have to win the Pac-12 tournament in order to get in the NCAA field, but …
“All I know is if we beat the No. 3 team in the country, you could get some attention, and if we can combine that with a win over Arizona State … this is a big opportunity.”
4. Solidify new roles. Since losing to ASU in double-overtime Feb. 14, the Wildcats have undergone a makeover that has impacted virtually every player in the rotation.
That includes point guard T.J. McConnell, who has become more offensive-minded, and shooting guards Gabe York and Elliott Pitts, who have been keeping defenses honest without Ashley’s ability to step outside.
Inside, center Kaleb Tarczewski has used more minutes to become even more productive, while Aaron Gordon has shifted exclusively to the post and responded with his best overall game on Sunday against Stanford with 19 points and 15 rebounds.
Then there’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who initially started at small forward in the wake of Ashley’s departure, but, after Miller began starting York on Feb. 19 at Utah, accepted a return to his sixth-man role.
Meanwhile, there’s been even more dumped on guard Nick Johnson, who now starts at small forward, plays both guard spots and defends guys of nearly all sizes.
Miller said some of UA’s recent success has been because of players being “more sure of themselves and the current role that we now have them in,” and he planned to keep reinforcing them this week.
“I think we’re pretty much where we want to be” with a rotation, Miller said. “We’re not going to sub less or sub more or play any differently. We just want to keep playing to win and finish out our regular season the best that we can.”
5. Keep it rolling. At this point, wins themselves may not matter so much to the Wildcats as the momentum they have re-established since the ASU game, beating three likely NCAA tournament teams and another (Utah) that has been nearly unbeatable at home.
Not only have the Wildcats continued to play defense well, something Miller hopes they can keep doing “all the way to the end,” but they have also shot well in recent wins over Colorado, California and Stanford.
So why stop now?
It’s March, after all.
“I think all of us as coaches would love our team to be playing our best in late February, early March,” Miller said. “March is the month in college basketball. … No question you want to be playing your best basketball.”