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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona basketball opens Pac-12 tournament with Cal

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Arizona men’s basketball guard T.J. McConnell (4) looks to pass as California guard Tyrone Wallace (3) defends during Arizona’s 99-60 victory over California on March 5 in McKale Center. McConnell and the Wildcats will face Cal for the third time this season when the two teams face off in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals today.

Arizona men’s basketball begins its quest to win its first Pac-12 Conference tournament championship in 13 years this afternoon, with the quarterfinals at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

The No. 5 team in the nation and top-seeded Wildcats (28-3, 16-2 Pac-12) open up the Pac-12 tournament in the quarterfinals against No. 8 seed California, which beat No. 9 seed Washington State 84-59 on Wednesday. Arizona tips off against the Golden Bears at noon MST on the Pac-12 Networks.

The Wildcats are 7-5 in the Pac-12 tournament under head coach Sean Miller and have made it to the championship game three times in the last four years, but haven’t won it since 2002.

“We haven’t won it,” Miller said. “We’ve played really well recently. In our program’s history, it’s been some time that we haven’t won it, and yet we won the regular season, and then having a chance to add to our win total and quality of play leading into what I think really matters, and that’s the NCAA tournament.”

Arizona went 2-0 against California (18-14) in the regular season, beating it 73-50 on the road and 99-60 at home. The Golden Bears went 7-11 during the conference season.

Arizona won four Pac-10 tournaments years before the conference became the Pac-12 or moved to Las Vegas.

“That’s pretty surprising, but I know since coach Miller’s been here, we’ve come pretty close quite a few times, and we’re trying to get over the hump this year,” Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said.

The tournament is the Wildcats’ first action since Miller, McConnell and forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson lost the Pac-12’s Coach of the Year, Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards, respectively.

Miller said that there weren’t any politics involved with the Pac-12 awards voting, and that he wasn’t sure if not winning the awards is motivation for his players.

“I don’t know,” Miller said. “I think we as a team, and me as a coach, have to be careful in talking about that, because when you talk about that, it’s almost like you’re discrediting those that have won the awards.”

McConnell downplayed any perceived awards snubs as motivation.

“I don’t think of the awards as motivation to us,” McConnell said. “I mean, I think motivation to us is being so close last year and not being able to win the Pac-12 Championship. That’s motivation for all of us, just being hungry and wanting to get over the hump.”

Arizona won the conference by three games over No. 2 seed Oregon, which the Wildcats beat 80-62 on the road and 90-56 in Tucson.

More than just the Pac-12’s automatic berth could be at stake for Arizona, which could move up from a two seed in the NCAA tournament, where most projections have it, if it wins the Pac-12 tournament and teams ahead of it lose.

“A lot can happen,” Miller said about the possibility of getting a No. 1 seed. “We’re in our tournament, others are in theirs. If we would be fortunate to win the conference tournament, I don’t know what seed we would get, but I know this: that there would be nobody that would look at us and say anything but ‘Boy, they’re playing their best basketball of the season.’”

Arizona is No. 7 in the RPI, 11-1 in its last 12 games, has won eight games in a row, is 3-0 against the RPI top 25 and is 7-0 against the top 50.

“I think at the end of the day, we just have to worry about us,” Arizona forward Stanley Johnson said. “They’re going to pick what teams we play, they’re going to decide how they mark their brackets, but all that matters is the game right here, you keep winning the games.”

The Pac-12 is offering its network free to everyone today, on Pac-12.com and the Pac-12 Now app.

Arizona fans are expected to be plentiful and vocal in Las Vegas.

“If the last couple of years in Vegas [are] an indication, I would expect that, especially if we’re able to advance, that [the] arena will take on a really red flavor as the tournament progresses,” Miller said. “Our fans are the best.”

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Follow James Kelley on Twitter.

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