That put them as a four-seed in the West.
What did Sean Miller think about that? Not much.
“I can’t control that,” the UA head coach said. “We’re just trying to get ready for the next game.”
That next game is at Arizona State, which just moved back into the Top 25. With a month left until Selection Sunday, Arizona has plenty of time to improve its seeding, and a win over the rival Sun Devils could help immensely. Especially because one of the criteria the selection committee said it’s emphasizing is quality road wins, and Arizona doesn’t have many, if any, of those.
A win over ASU would also help Arizona clinch the Pac-12 title. The Wildcats hold a two-game lead over USC and UCLA with just five games to play — and Miller is more concerned about that than where UA stands in the selection committee’s eyes.
“It’s really not about our resume, it’s about just getting ready for practice here today and preparing for a good team on the road that’s in our conference,” he said. “I think that if you have the opportunity to fight for a conference regular-season championship, you tend to look at that as very important and how ready you are for that next challenge is really the most meaningful and really the only thing we can control.”
Another thing Arizona can’t really control is how many Pac-12 teams get into the NCAA Tournament. Bill Walton believes (or at least says he believes) the conference will get nine teams in.
Miller, more of a realist, hopes the Pac-12 gets four or five in.
“We had four in last year. A lot of people don’t realize that,” he said. “That speaks to the depth or lack of depth of a conference. We had three teams that were very high seeds and on the threshold to the Final Four.
“This year, I think we don’t have as strong as depth, per say, but my hope is that the ball bounces our way and we can get at least one-third of our conference in. Obviously once you get in the tournament, you hope that everybody advances.”
Right now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects five Pac-12 squads will make it — Arizona, ASU, Washington, USC, and USC.
Those last three are barely in, though. USC and UCLA are both among the last four in, while Washington is pegged as an 11-seed.
Akot bolsters bench
Miller reiterated that he thought Arizona’s performance against USC was one of its best all season. One reason why is because the Wildcats actually got contributions from their bench, whom Miller met with after the loss to UCLA.
Arizona’s bench outscored USC’s 8-7, but also did some good things defensively.
Emmanuel Akot, in particular, was effective, posting a +11 plus/minus in seven minutes. The freshman’s playing time has been sporadic this season, but it is starting to experience some consistency.
He played 11 minutes against UCLA and 14 minutes against Washington. A lot of Akot’s success against USC came when he played alongside Ira Lee and Deandre Ayton, which gave the UA a plethora of size, length, and athleticism in its frontcourt.
“He’s just continuing to stay with it, gotten better,” Miller said of Akot. “Sometimes a younger player, they want things to happen day one their freshman year. The most minutes, the most points, etc. Emmanuel’s battled tendinitis really the entire year and he’s one of the youngest players on our team. But I think when he comes off the bench, he has a good sense about him. I think his purpose is good. He’s not coming in trying to score as much as he is really to play his role. And that role is to take care of the ball. He’s a good passer. He’s bigger than a lot of our other perimeter players. He gives us a different look on defense.
“Defense takes a little time to develop and I think you see that with him. He’s probably more sure of himself right now here in February than he would have been in November.”
Part of why Akot has not played as much as expected this season is because of the knee tendinitis Miller mentioned. But Miller thinks it is hindering Akot less and less these days.
“He struggles some. I just think his continued efforts in the weight room, learning how to take care of himself, and communicating effectively, all that has probably lessened it,” Miller said. “So if he’s dealing with it, it doesn’t just derail him right now. And it’s something that he’ll get over as he continues to grow and get older, develop strength and flexibility, and we’re obviously working hard with him.”
Keys to beating ASU
Defending the 3-point line is imperative for Arizona on Thursday at ASU. The Sun Devils shoot 37 percent from 3 and take a high volume of them.
The Wildcats did a good job defending the 3 in the first matchup against the Sun Devils, holding them to 8-of-25 shooting.
“That’s one of many keys in our game Thursday, is to recognize how lethal they are and how quickly they can score points by not just one or two players, but a number of them really utilize the 3-point shot,” Miller said.
“I think the other thing about ASU is they also combine that with getting to the foul line, Tra Holder in particular. He can live at the foul line, and those are two problematic areas for us. Defending the 3-point shot and playing 40 minutes without fouling. We’re after growth in both of those areas and we’ll be challenged in both of those areas for sure.”
Miller also called ASU forward Romello White a valuable player.
“When he scores, and he shoots a high field-goal percentage and they can get him the ball around the basket, I think they’re an even better team,” Miller said. “So we have to be ready for him as well.”
Miller couldn’t recall the most hostile crowd Arizona has faced at ASU, but expects Thursday’s to be rowdy. The Sun Devils are on pace to break their home attendance record, after all.
“When we play on the road, we get the crowd’s best shot,” Miller said. “It’s hard to really focus on that. I think the fact they have such good attendance right now is good for our conference. It gives our conference a boost. I know a lot of the questions sometimes is ‘hey, UCLA and Arizona have strong teams and they’re highly-ranked that’s great for the Pac-12.’ Obviously that’s true but the depth of the conference speaks louder than just two programs.
“When you have a number of two programs that are thriving … that’s what makes the conference so good. There’s 12 of us and it’s nice when you can point to a number of teams and coaches … so everything that ASU’s doing is a positive. We know we’re going to be in for a great crowd and that’s what makes winning on the road so difficult.”
Rawle Alkins, who compared UA-ASU to North Carolina-Duke because of the proximity of the schools, thinks ASU presents a tougher road environment than Washington, where the Wildcats lost two weeks ago.
“I think ASU is probably crazier,” he said. “I hope that we have more fans than ASU. That’s how it was last year. But who knows? This year, they’re playing great so they might have more people.”
ASU (19-6, 7-6 Pac-12) has not been quite the same team it was when it entered McKale undefeated back in December, but the Devils have won three straight, riding high into Thursday’s rivalry game.
“I think if they would have beaten us that night in McKale, they would have been the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. So this time I’m sure they’re very confident and they should be,” Miller said. “But I thought the last time we played them, they were very confident as well.”
One-game week “is very timely”
There are no bye weeks in college basketball, but a one-game week is the next best thing. Arizona gets that this week, as its road game at ASU is its only contest until next Thursday when the Wildcats begin a two-game road trip against the Oregon schools.
“I think that comes at a good time,” Miller said of the one-game week. “We’ve had back-to-back long trips in the Pac-12 as well. It’s difficult to win both games on the road in the Pac-12. It’s been documented for a long time. But I think if you add that extra day, it puts maybe even more pressure on the road team. But for us to have that one game is great. Nothing really changes from now until Thursday, but what it changes more is after the game till our next game against Oregon State.”
Last year, Arizona had a one-game week in the final week of the regular season. Did that help? It appears so. The well-rested Wildcats played arguably their best basketball of the season a week later when they won the Pac-12 Tournament.
Arizona doesn’t get that same luxury this season, but it has not had a one-game week since it faced ASU on Dec. 30 in the conference opener, so it’s overdue.
“We’ll take advantage of that and I think to have it come in mid-February is very timely,” Miller said.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire