LAS VEGAS — The Arizona Wildcats aren’t playing well these days.
By their lofty standards, you could even say they crashed and burned their way to the regular-season finish line, losing 10 of their last 13 games.
They also have the toughest possible Pac-12 Tournament path this week, having to face a USC team that drubbed them by 23 points for the right just to play first-place Washington in the quarterfinals Thursday.
The Wildcats don’t have a reliable go-to scorer, with Brandon Williams still off his game slightly following a knee issue and Brandon Randolph only occasionally visible.
Their defense and rebounding are average, on good days, while they’ve also fumbled away their most reliable strength — taking care of the ball — by averaging 14 turnovers in the past three games.
And there’s no telling if enough of their fans will bother showing up in time for Wednesday’s matinee to turn Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena into “McKale North” the way they usually do.
“It’s just different this year” at Arizona, analyst Don MacLean said on a Pac-12 Networks podcast this week, adding that he doesn’t expect the Wildcats to make a run. “This is not a Sean Miller team that we are accustomed to seeing.”
Maybe not. But they do wear the same uniforms.
The ones that say “Arizona,” representing a program that has won almost two-thirds of its Pac-12 Tournament games, including four titles, since the event was moved, reincarnated and played at neutral sites in 2002.
That’s on top of all the other success Arizona has had in the past three and a half decades.
That’s why, instead of talking about improbably winning four games in four days to capture an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, Miller has been talking to his players about showing pride and effort.
Maybe that will count for something.
“It has to come within you as an individual player,” Miller said. “It’s gotta mean something to wear the Arizona uniform and to be playing in a prestigious conference tournament like we have in T-Mobile.”
Will it? The Wildcats’ body language will answer that question shortly after noon Wednesday, when the Wildcats and Trojans will tip off the first game of the postseason event.
It will be the first time in the Miller era that the Wildcats have ever had to play a first-round game, and they’ll have to wake up quickly: On Jan. 24 in Los Angeles, USC held them to 27.8 percent shooting and destroyed them inside, with big men Bennie Boatwright and Nick Rakocevic each collecting 12 rebounds.
Maybe it’ll help the UA this time that it has center Chase Jeter back to normal, after Jeter missed the Los Angeles games with a back injury and was limited for several more after that.
Jeter is also one of the few Wildcats with experience in high-level conference tournaments. Of the current UA team, only Dylan Smith played in all three Pac-12 Tournament games last season, with Alex Barcello and Brandon Randolph only playing in a game each while Ira Lee sat out following a concussion.
But Jeter (at Duke) and forward Ryan Luther (Pitt) have both played in ACC Tournaments, while point guard Justin Coleman (Alabama) played in the SEC event.
“They’re familiar with what that feels like in these tournaments,” Miller said. “That’s also a part of what they bring.”
Mostly, though, Miller said it will take effort to get through the tournament this time. Effort that leads to key defensive stops, defensive rebounds that prevent an opponent’s second shot, and stamina to sustain that effort for multiple days.
“If you’re a team that’s trying to win it, it’s ‘Can you do it again the next day without any rest? Can you do it again a third day, and maybe this year, can you do it again for a fourth day?’” Miller said. “It’s the effort-level guys who’ve given their heart and soul.
“It’s being the harder-playing team, and if you’re a team who takes care of the ball, you have to be able to do the things that make you a good team. … In our case, there’s a lot that we didn’t do well (this season). So can we be a better defensive team in this tournament than maybe we’ve shown recently?”
But maybe a little history, and pride in that history, can help. Under Miller, the Wildcats have won 74 percent of their Pac-12 Tournament games, captured three championships and only lost their first game once before: During Miller’s first season of 2009-10, the Wildcats lost to UCLA in the quarterfinals.
“We’ve played well in the Pac-12 Tournament, we really have,” Miller said. “In losses, I feel we’ve always played very, very hard. Sometimes playing hard isn’t good enough, but I don’t think we’ve ever really left there with regrets. We’ve played to win and we’ve always looked at that tournament as having great meaning.”
Arizona’s skid and unusual position as a No. 9 seed is only one storyline in the Pac-12 Tournament, of course. Others include: