LAS VEGAS —
A better basketball team may not pass Dana Altman’s way at Oregon, ever.
The Ducks have it all: An extended zone defense that is about as fun as a tonsillectomy; the Pac-12’s most feared and creative scorer, Dillon Brooks; and a mobile, lane-clogging rim protector, Jordan Bell.
More famously, the Ducks have a fusillade of 3-point snipers who last month buried Arizona with 16 long balls.
You wondered why anyone in an Arizona uniform would ever look forward to playing the Ducks again, but late Friday night in the UA locker room, Allonzo Trier said, “I’ve been thinking about getting another crack at them for a long time.”
It was an opportunity to set things straight for both teams.
At noon Saturday, Oregon’s defensive stopper Bell posted a Twitter image of the scoreboard from 2015 Pac-12 championship game. It read “Arizona 80, Oregon 52.”
“I still think about it,” wrote Bell.
So on the eve of Selection Sunday, the Wildcats and Ducks engaged in Payback Saturday. It was 40 minutes worthy of a Final Four game. The Wildcats shot 58 percent, including 68 in the second half, a clutch touch when every possession mattered.
Yet the Ducks somehow had a chance to win in the final 24 seconds.
Arizona won 83-80, and you’d have thought it won the national championship with the way the Wildcats carried on in an extended midcourt celebration.
Even a Pac-12 championship game of 29-4 teams, both in the Top 10, is rarely going to get the national acclaim of Duke and North Carolina or any of the ratings-grabbing rivalries. But this one was a headliner.
Since Altman and Sean Miller entered the Pac-12, the Ducks and Wildcats have taken over at the top, replacing Washington and UCLA. Get used to it. Prime time, every time.
If Arizona doesn’t get a No. 1 seed Sunday, it’s a bracketing sin.
If the Ducks don’t get a No. 2, there should be an investigation.
T-Mobile Arena was such a madhouse Saturday it could’ve been T-McKale Arena. The only thing missing was the Ooh Aah Man.
What made the setting so appealing was that the Ducks beat Arizona 85-58 a month ago in Oregon. It was the worst conference beatdown of Miller’s eight seasons, a soul-searching afternoon that triggered a monthlong recovery with the Wildcats trying to right themselves.
In the end, nobody got cheated. It all came to fruition.
In three days in Las Vegas, with Trier becoming the triggerman, the Wildcats shared and they got down on D. They won back-to-back games as a betting underdog against Top 10 teams.
If the testament to a good team is one that peaks at the end, Arizona is a good team, a very good team.
Miller put on a championship cap for the trophy celebration at game’s end, and didn’t that look both odd and fitting? Have you ever seen him in a baseball cap? Has anyone? But Miller pulled the 2017 Pac-12 Champions cap firm over his head and wore it amid a shower of red and blue confetti and a thunder of noise.
About all you could hear above the T-Mobile din was Miller saying, “These guys have done something special.”
“I don’t know how many people put their chips on us this weekend,” Miller said.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to be disappointed with any seed.”
Arizona enters the Madness at 30-4. That’s historic in an Arizona context, and any context. The Wildcats have been better entering the NCAA Tournament only at 31-2 in 1988 and 31-3 in 2015.
In last month’s loss at Oregon, the Wildcats were annihilated in a basketball sense. Their defense was so vulnerable the Ducks made 16 of 25 3-point shots and led 38-18 at half. The UA wasn’t just defeated, it was deflowered.
But a few strokes before midnight 37 days later, all of the Wildcats climbed a ladder in the T-Mobile Arena and snipped down he nets.
The key to beating Oregon was a more committed defensive effort; the Ducks made just 6 of 22 3-point shots and it was almost ironic that Ducks sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey, who was 6-for-6 from 3-point distance in that Eugene blowout, buried a 3-pointer at the final buzzer Saturday.
This time it was meaningless.
To win a Pac-12 championship you sometimes have to be a coaching contortionist, and Miller was just that Saturday. He started Keanu Pinder instead of Dusan Ristic. Have you ever heard of a Top 10 college basketball coach insert a first-time starter in the year’s 34th game?
Had you been told Arizona would beat the Ducks with Lauri Markkanen making just four layups and missing half of his six free throws, you might’ve bet the rent money on the Ducks at a Strip casino.
You might’ve anyway.
On Friday, Miller catapulted to the top of the sports news cycle by calling an unnecessary timeout against UCLA. Some called him sophomoric. Some called it petty.
But the best thing about that timeout, and about Miller’s never-give-an-inch approach, is that his players loved it. Twenty-four hours later they played hard enough, long enough to give him a league championship that almost no one would’ve predicted 37 days ago on a rainy afternoon in Oregon.