Arizona won its first Pac-10 championship 31 years ago last Friday, and to celebrate the occasion, Lute Olson walked from Pauley Pavilion to nearby Alice’s Restaurant, stood on a table and toasted a small gathering of UA fans.
“Here’s to many more,” he said.
No one asked Olson what he meant by “many more” on that Monday night in Westwood, but he couldn’t possibly have meant 15 in 31 years. That would’ve been a ridiculous guess.
Who does that besides Kansas?
But on Saturday, a few minutes after Arizona won a share of its 15th basketball title in 31 years, Sean Miller entered his team’s noisy locker room and was showered by water from his celebrating players and staff.
“It ruined my only nice tie,” he said, smiling.
There would be no toast, no dance, no cutting down the nets but there would be an understanding that the 15th league basketball championship at Arizona won’t be just another number in the rafters.
“I don’t know if any team I’ve been part of faced more obstacles and more adversity and handled it so well,” said Miller. “This one really stands out for me.”
Miller deferred questions about the Pac-12 tournament and the approaching Madness by saying, “I’m not looking forward to anything right now; this has really been a grind.”
Arizona went 8-1 on the Pac-12 road, which has been topped just twice in league history: by the 9-0 Oregon State Beavers of 1981 and by Olson’s 2003 Arizona club. If you go 8-1 on the road in any league, from the MAC to the SWAC, you can afford to buy a new tie.
Saturday’s 73-60 victory over Arizona State was neither a classic nor a game you’ll remember a week from now. It was a tough shift at the office, a day in which you couldn’t wait for the 5 o’clock whistle because the Sun Devils made it so tough.
Based on the talent I’ve seen in the Pac-12 this year, ASU didn’t outman anyone but Oregon State, yet Bobby Hurley got the most of what he has been able to put together in 22 months – which ain’t much.
Miller had to be resourceful and creative to find a way to beat a Sun Devils team that is (a) the smallest in the league probably since the 1970s, and (b) one that has the thinnest bench in a generation. All five ASU starters average at least 30 minutes a game. That last happened at USC in 1999-2000.
Arizona deployed junior forward Keanu Pinder for 25 minutes. Pinder has been the league’s Forgotten Man of late, playing just 49 minutes in the month of February and twice not getting off the bench.
“We’ve learned that Keanu has to be part of what we do,” said Miller.
What Arizona is doing in March isn’t what it did in November, December or January. Miller has remolded his rotation and his approach as freshman Lauri Markkanen has gone into a puzzling shooting slump. Markkanen missed all five of his 3-point attempts Saturday — he is now 4 for 28 dating to Arizona’s Feb. 4 loss at Oregon — and although Arizona hasn’t played an “A-game” since winning at UCLA on Jan. 21, it still found a way to share the conference title with Oregon.
“We’ll say we’re Pac-12 champs and Oregon will say it’s Pac-12 champs,” said UA forward Allonzo Trier. “Hopefully we’ll see them in Las Vegas.”
Strangely, Markkanen might’ve been Arizona’s best player Saturday, even though he shot three airballs and was limited to 23 minutes because of foul trouble.
When Markkanen was removed from the game with 14:46 remaining, UA assistant coach Book Richardson got in his face. It looked like a corner man in a boxing fight giving his boxer hell. Whatever Book said, Markkanen returned to the floor a different player.
He had a Karch Kiraly-type volleyball block of two ASU shots, drove the baseline for a thunder dunk and played with a fierceness not often seen from the Finnish freshman.
His team picked up the vibe and built a 16-point lead.
“It shifted the momentum for us,” said Trier. “Defensively, Lauri changed the game.”
Every little (and unexpected) thing helped lead Arizona to their 15th league title.
The Sun Devils held their Senior Day 10 minutes before tipoff, which might not be the prescribed way to hold an emotional ceremony. It’s like there are tears before the game and, on Saturday, tears after it.
It became Tears Times Two.
But as long as Hurley doesn’t bounce to a better job, the tears will disappear. If Hurley stays for the long haul at ASU, or even for another three or four years, it won’t be a place you automatically mark down as a “W” in October.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump to get a little cushion going into the second half,” Hurley said. “But overall, we fought hard. But, hey, Arizona got the record they have because they are well-coached, and they guard well consistently, and you know for us to give up 73, I would think we’d have a good chance to win.”
Maybe one year the Wildcats and Sun Devils will at last be 1-2, or 2-1, atop the league standings.
For now, however, it is Miller who carries the torch for basketball in this state.
“We have a high-expectation environment,” he said. “The stakes are high for us every time we walk out there.”
It is understood. It is March. For Arizona, all of the big games await.