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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Elimination games nothing new for Arizona basketball

Arizona’s in do-or-die mode.

The Wildcats’ backs are against the wall and it’ll be time to win or go home come Thursday in Staples Center. If Arizona doesn’t leave Los Angeles with three wins in three days, head coach Sean Miller can add “2011-12 NIT appearance” to his resume.

The pressure is on and, based on the fact that Arizona starts two freshman guards and counts on a freshman big off of the bench, it would be easy to assume the Wildcats will wilt under pressure.

Sure, it remains to be seen how Josiah Turner, Nick Johnson and Angelo Chol perform in their first Pac-12 Tournament and how the UA will bounce back from a bad ASU loss.

But this isn’t Arizona’s first set of must-win games. This isn’t the first time this Wildcats group has been forced to employ the mantra of “now or never.”

Arizona’s been swimming upstream since falling to Washington at home on Jan. 28 to move to 5-4 in conference.

“We’ve been in these games since early February,” Miller said on Tuesday. “It’s not like when we went to Cal there was no pressure or playing our last home game here against UCLA, playing at Arizona State. In a sense we’ve been in elimination games for about a month now.”

Arizona’s made the NCAA Tournament bubble its home for the last month or so. After the whiteout loss to Washington, most media outlets wrote off the Wildcats. The UA lost two of its last five games and, in a ho-hum conference, it looked like Arizona was destined for mediocrity. From that point on, Arizona entered must-win mode.

If the Wildcats hadn’t swept the Bay Area schools, their chances at an at-large bid would have been all but squashed. If they haddn’t taken care of Colorado at home, the Buffs would have swept UA on the year and gained an edge in the conference standings and the eyes of the selection committee.

Had Arizona not at least split the Washington schools and swept the L.A. schools at home, the Wildcats would most certainly have lost their Pac-12 Tournament first-round bye and chances at the Big Dance.

Then there was the ASU game, a rivalry matchup in which Arizona had everything to lose while the Sun Devils were able to play carefree and loose.

The Wildcats ended up losing to the Sun Devils in what Miller agreed was his most devastating regular season loss as a head coach given what was on the line.

All of the talk of must-win games for an at-large bid vanished, and Arizona still ended up having to rely on a Pac-12 Tournament victory to avoid the NIT.

But that’s not the point. The moral of the story written by Miller and company over the last month is that Arizona’s been in gut-check games since February.

Every game held major implications, allowing this young Arizona team to develop a mentality most teams don’t acquire until conference tournament time.

These players have faced questions about being on the bubble and must-win games for weeks now. They’ve played in seven games decided by four points or less and two overtime games.

No matter how many freshmen it starts or how bad the ASU loss was, this team’s been in this position for the last month.

UCLA, who it will most likely take on Thursday, is still one of the hottest teams in the conference and as tough of a matchup for the Wildcats as anyone.

But for Arizona, the March Madness started in February, and the Wildcats are as prepared for a three-day grind as any team in the conference.

Whether that translates into three wins and an NCAA Tournament berth remains to be seen.

­­­­—Mike Schmitz is a marketing senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @WildcatHoops .

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