No. 5 Arizona looking to win elusive Pac-12 tournament title
LAS VEGAS — Arizona was the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 and held up its end by rolling to a second straight conference title.
The next step is accomplishing something that's been elusive for the Wildcats: Winning the Pac-12 tournament.
No. 5 Arizona has reached the Pac-12 title game three times during its six seasons under Sean Miller, but has yet to claim the crown.
The top-seeded Wildcats lost to UCLA last season, Colorado in 2012 and Washington in the championship game the season before.
Arizona (28-3) enters this year's tournament, which starts Wednesday in Las Vegas, as the No. 1 seed after finishing three games ahead of Utah in the Pac-12 at 16-2.
The Wildcats are still in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but will need a strong conference tournament run if they're going to get it. Arizona has not won the Pac-12 tournament since 2002 when Luke Walton was tournament MVP.
"We can't overlook our opponents in Vegas and look to the NCAA Tournament because that's when you get beat," Arizona senior point guard T.J. McConnell said.
Arizona's slipups this season have been evidence of that.
All three of the Wildcats' losses were unexpected, to unranked teams.
Arizona's lone non-conference loss came just before Christmas, when the Wildcats had breakdowns on individual defensive matchups in a 71-67 loss to UNLV.
Arizona had another stumble three games into the Pac-12 season, losing by two at Oregon State, a team that finished seventh in conference.
The Wildcats also lost to Arizona State on Feb. 7, though that was a road game against their biggest rival.
Arizona does seem to be on a roll headed into the Pac-12 tournament, closing out the regular season with eight straight wins, including victories over California and Stanford last week.
"They're a very good basketball team, they're going to go on runs," Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said.
Arizona has a first-round bye and will face the winner of the game between Washington State and Cal in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
A few more things to look for in the Pac-12 tournament:
UTAH'S CHANCE: Utah was seen as the biggest hurdle for Arizona early in the season, climbing into the top 10 of The Associated Press poll by early January. The Utes couldn't sustain it, though. They were swept by Arizona, including an 18-point loss in Tucson, and closed out the regular season with a loss at Washington, which finished 11th in conference. "I'm concerned. I'm really concerned," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the loss to the Huskies. "This wasn't a good performance, and I'm not going to judge based on one performance. Hopefully it's a wake-up call. We've got to be a lot better to have a chance."
RISING DUCKS: Oregon appeared to be in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament after a slow start to the conference season. The Ducks are in good shape now after winning nine of their final 10 games to earn the No. 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. They did all right with conference honors, too: Joseph Young was named the Pac-12 player of the year and Dana Altman was the coach of the year.
BRUINS: UCLA was another team on shaky NCAA Tournament ground after a stretch of three losses in five games. The Bruins finished the season strong, though, winning their final three games to get back into the bracket mix. The defending Pac-12 tournament champions could certainly bolster their case with a strong run in this year's tournament.
SUN DEVILS IMPROVE: Arizona State is the No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, something that didn't seem possible after the Sun Devils opened the conference season 0-4. Arizona State rallied from the slow start to beat rival Arizona and finish 9-9 in conference, playing some of its best basketball at the end of the season.