LAS VEGAS — In the most upside-down Arizona basketball season of the past 35 years, maybe it was fitting that the Wildcats went out first this time.
The champions of the 2017 and 2018 Pac-12 Tournaments, and the proud program that has made 32 NCAA Tournament appearances over those three-and-a-half decades, ended its season Wednesday in the first game of the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, losing 78-65 to USC.
The Wildcats stayed closer to the Trojans this time around, but many of the same issues that prevented UA from winning more than three games since Jan. 19 popped up again: The Wildcats allowed USC to shoot 48.3 percent, coughed up 12 turnovers that led to 17 USC points and made only 5 of 22 3-pointers.
The Trojans outscored them 21-5 to open the second half; the Wildcats could never catch back up. It was the same way on Jan. 24, when USC beat the UA by 23 points in Los Angeles.
“We just kind of wore down,” center Chase Jeter said.
That all meant the ninth-seeded Wildcats were out of T-Mobile Arena before 3 p.m. on the first day of the conference tournament, with nowhere to go anytime soon.
Arizona finishes with a 17-15 record and has no NCAA Tournament, not even an NIT, to look forward to. Just a lot of questions about what was another season full of adversity, and about what the future might bring.
As usual, UA coach Sean Miller faced some of those questions in his postgame press conference. Reportedly facing a subpoena in the upcoming federal college basketball bribery trial, with his program also under NCAA scrutiny, Miller was asked if it might have been his last game at Arizona.
“No, and I’m not going to comment on that,” he said.
Miller also declined to comment about what sort of conversations he’s had with UA administrators about the future. Some of his players also face questions about their individual futures.
Redshirt juniors Dylan Smith and Jeter both said they weren’t sure whether they’d be back. Since Jeter has already graduated, and Smith will this spring, both can play elsewhere immediately as graduate transfers. They could also wade into professional basketball.
“No decisions have been made,” Jeter said.
Chase Jeter: “Our better days are ahead of us and we’re gonna make sure we have the tools to put us in a good spot.” pic.twitter.com/AppXD76pux— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) March 13, 2019
The Wildcats’ leading scorer, sophomore Brandon Randolph, also declined to comment about his future.
“To be honest with you, I’m really not worried about that,” Randolph said. “We just lost, so I’m just kind of more worried about how my brothers are doing, how my family’s doing.”
Considering how their season dropped off quickly after a 13-4 start that even had them in the early Pac-12 title consideration, the Wildcats appeared to be holding up well after the loss.
Pac-12 Tournament rules mandate that teams open their locker rooms to media following a cooling-off period. When the door opened Wednesday, there was no sign of tears, nobody with a towel over their head, nobody hiding, and even a few light laughs.
Instead of putting their heads down, the Wildcats mostly talked about the same topics Miller emphasized at the same time on the postgame podium.
Several of them noted that they coped fairly well with a lot of setbacks — having a starter (Emmanuel Akot) quit the team in early January, then having two of their best players (Brandon Williams and Jeter) injured — and watching UA move to fire a second assistant coach under Miller, Mark Phelps.
“I don’t like to hear people say that this team isn’t as talented,” Smith said, when asked to compare his experience on last season’s Pac-12 champions. “We just went through a lot of adversity, actually a little bit more than last year. I mean, nobody quit the team last year, things like that.
“It’s just we didn’t have enough depth to push through those situations.”
Wednesday was one of those situations. The Wildcats trailed by up to 11 points in the first half, then shot 50 percent over the half to pull into a 40-40 halftime tie. They then fell apart early in the second half.
UA made just 4 of 18 shots over the first 12 minutes after halftime while USC took leads of up to 18 points midway through the half. The Wildcats’ 2-for-14 3-point shooting in the second half then made any notion of a comeback difficult.
But there were things for the Wildcats to be happy about. They outrebounded USC 39-30 and held Trojan center Nick Rakocevic to just six points and two rebounds, after he dropped 27 and 12 on the Wildcats during USC’s 80-57 win over UA in January. (Then again, USC forward Bennie Boatwright went off for 22 points and 11 rebounds).
The Wildcats also received 7-for-11 shooting from Ryan Luther, saw Williams go to the free-throw line nine times instead of getting in foul trouble as he has recently, and took a 10-5 lead in the first four minutes while not starting the slumping Randolph for the first time this season.
Randolph finished with two points on 1-for-6 shooting, making a layup that gave UA a brief 40-38 lead in the final minute of the first half. He appeared to take the move to the bench well.
“It was definitely (Miller) trying to shake things up,” Randolph said. “I think Coach Miller, usually his schemes work. I don’t really question them. And I thought the starting five for this game did really well coming out. I was definitely proud of them. I wasn’t mad or anything.”
The way Miller spoke, he wasn’t angry, either.
The Wildcats coach of the past 10 years said he was proud of a team that played through adversity that “came in a lot of different forms.” He said a 17-15 record was about where he figured the Wildcats would finish, and suggested their historically bad season might have been worse if it weren’t for their effort and togetherness.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever sounded different, and I won’t now,” Miller said. “In many ways, we did the best that we could.”