Crown the Arizona Wildcats Pac-12 Champions, but don't consider that gold star the part that's supposed to scare the rest of the college hoops field. It's how they've done it that should.
Two games remain in the regular season schedule, but Oregon and Oregon State shouldn't be the only teams on notice.
The NCAA tournament field, still to be filled out, should open its eyes. Arizona is no longer a Brandon Ashley away from being the outright favorites to win the championship. A convincing 79-66 win against the Stanford Cardinal on senior night made it three straight dominating wins over RPI top-55 ranked teams, and suddenly it seemed that the Wildcats could enter the postseason as the best team in the nation, ranked that way or not.
Even if the Pac-12's mob of teams in the middle of the pack are average to good, the Wildcats are still hammering average to good teams.
It's always been about their defense, but once it seemed like the loss of Ashley opened the door to every weakness offensively, the Wildcats have never been clicking at a better level. Take the well-detailed scouting report on Aaron Gordon. Teams know he can't shoot, but some way, he was leading UA's scoring effort with 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting, all while grabbing a career-high 15 boards in what is likely his last game in McKale Center. He pulled off that feat against a big man duo of Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell that might have solid professional potential as well.
Another example: consider Nick Johnson went 3-for-13 from the field but Arizona's offense still hit 44 percent overall and 43 percent from three-point range. And when Kaleb Tarczewski bullied Stanford big man Stefan Nastic and crew with 10 points and six rebounds in 16 minutes, wonder what production was in store if he hadn't gotten into foul trouble and then fouled out.
Arizona's halfcourt offense will always be at risk of a horrendous-looking game, but not if it continues thriving in the defense-to-offense transition.
The Wildcats outscored the Cardinal 15-4 on the offensive glass but more importantly gained a 16-0 advantage in fastbreak points.
It looked like the Andre Iguodala and Hassan Adams days, when Arizona defended like mad, rebounded and crammed it down its opponents' throats.
Depth, perhaps the Wildcats' biggest issue still, was not an problem Sunday. Sean Miller has found an intriguing rotational question of addition by subtraction that showed on Senior Night, when senior guard Jordin Mayes started in place of Gabe York. Mayes disappointed by not scoring on two attempts, but York pumped in 12 points -- nine of those were part of a backbreaking run in the middle of the second half. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's role in the transition offense shined with eight points, three blocks and four assists.
So Arizona has outright won a Pac-12, as expected. What wasn't expected was a team having lost a dynamic talented looking even better down the road without him. It's not to say this team would be worse off with another NBA-caliber player, only that the Wildcats hadn't developed into this confident and consistent of a group before Ashley was lost for the season.
Surely, the Wildcats have bigger goals than winning the regular season title. Those, however, have never seemed as realistic as they did following the victory against Stanford.
Arizona just won the Pac-12 with a convincing win over Stanford. Aaron Gordon had 19 and 15. Wildcats still a major threat to win it.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 3, 2014
Arizona will get more No. 1 votes in this week's AP Top 25. People will complain. Those people will not have watched them recently.— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) March 3, 2014
Arizona isn't the same team without Brandon Ashley. But they're a different team that's still good enough to get to North Texas.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 3, 2014
This new, uptempo Arizona might be better than the team that had Brandon Ashley.— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) March 3, 2014
Arizona looks like a Final Four team right now.— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) March 3, 2014