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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona catapults itself into NCAA tournament discussion with weekend sweep

PALO ALTO, Calif. — The race for the Pac-12 Conference championship is such a fickle thing.

It looked like the Arizona men’s basketball team’s title hopes were dashed nine days ago after a heartbreaking home loss to Washington — a loss that moved the Wildcats to 5-4 in conference play and seemingly knocked them out of the Pac-12 race. They lost Kevin Parrom for the season after he broke his right foot.

Everyone had chalked up the season to one that, barring a Pac-12 Tournament win, would end with Arizona playing in the National Invitation Tournament.

Everyone but the 16 players that make up the Wildcats’ roster, that is.

Angelo Chol had a breakout weekend. Kyle Fogg played like the senior leader he was expected to be before the season began. The Wildcats overcame the loss of their backup point guard and won a game with seven players seeing action compared to head coach Sean Miller’s preferred nine or 10-deep rotation.

“In our locker room, we feel like we’re the favorites,” freshman guard Nick Johnson said.

Arizona used that confidence and turned it into what could easily be described as the most unlikely sweep that any team in the conference will earn this season — one that lifted the Wildcats back into the Pac-12 race and, more importantly, the NCAA Tournament discussion.

Arizona knew the magnitude of Saturday’s game and willed itself to a win despite a woefully short bench and several players in foul trouble. Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins called Arizona the best defensive team that the Cardinal has played all year after the UA held it to 25 percent shooting.

Arizona’s swagger is starting to creep back to where it was at the end of last season. Brendon Lavender held a finger up to his mouth to silence the crowd after he hit a 3-pointer that all but ended Sunday’s game.

Chol threw down a pair of monster dunks on Cal defenders — something the quiet freshman wouldn’t have even tried two months ago — and the freshman’s impact also included four blocked shots along with altering countless others against Stanford.

Miller got in Cal guard Jorge Gutierrez’s face after he spilled into the Arizona bench and tried to do his best Hulk Hogan impression on assistant Joe Pasternack. The Wildcats had a strong contingent of fans at both games — including about half of Stanford’s Maples Pavilion that broke into “U of A!” chants that drowned out the home crowd every time something went in Arizona’s favor.

For the first time all season, Arizona looked like a team that expected to win. It hit big shots. It made game-changing defensive plays. As strange as this might sound after the way the first half of Pac-12 play went, the Wildcats made nearly all of the small plays that can turn a heartbreaking loss into a 10-point win.

And, thankfully for Arizona, the top of the Pac-12 is falling apart team by team. Washington is the only team that’s separated itself from anyone in the conference, and the Huskies have lost to St. Louis and South Dakota State this season.

With an unexpected road sweep, Arizona has catapulted itself into the discussion for the conference’s contenders. In a typical year, a down Pac-12 would have hurt Arizona’s tournament seeding.

But this year, it’s giving an improving Arizona team a chance to rise to the top of the standings while the rest of the conference crumbles into ruins.

— Alex Williams is the sports editor. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @WildcatHoops.

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