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Arizona’s stark NCAA tournament reality: Pac-12 title or bust

arizona-wildcats-ncaa-tournament-pac-12-las-vegas-nit-bracketology Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Selection Sunday is one of the most anticipated days of the year in college basketball, a time when all the hard work of the season manifests itself in a spot in the 68-team NCAA tournament field.

For many teams, and their fanbases, the intrigue centers around seeding and matchups. For others, it’s whether they’re in or out.

There will be no drama on Selection Sunday for the Arizona Wildcats, however. They’ll undoubtedly know the night before whether they’re in or out, since that’s when the Pac-12 tourney final is being played.

In other words—and those of coach Sean Miller—the league’s automatic bid is looking like Arizona’s best (and maybe only) bet to make a seventh consecutive NCAA tourney.

Arizona heads into Thursday’s game at rival Arizona State at 14-7 overall and 5-3 in conference play. That’s already as many losses as the Wildcats had a year ago, when they won both the Pac-12 regular-season and conference titles. Had they lost to USC in the 2018 conference final rather than won that game the only change to their tournament fate would have been in terms of seeding, maybe dropping one or two lines from a No. 5.

This time around, any loss at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas is all but certain to relegate Arizona to the NIT, if that.

Miller seems resigned to this fate, based on his comments Tuesday.

“I think what we have to do is, we have to focus on being the very best team that we can be and then head into our conference tournament, very similar to a lot of the low-major, mid-major leagues, and that is to play our best basketball in Vegas and to win three games in three days or four games and four days,” he said. “Being healthy—and we can’t control that, but hopefully that’ll be the place—and playing our best basketball, being as prepared as we can, as confident we can, and making those three or four days a magical magical ride.

“I would think that every team in our conference, minus one or two, would have that same way I’m thinking. That’s realistic.”

Aside from comparing the Pac-12 to a mid-major conference, which while apropos is a bit depressing, Miller not relying on an at-large bid makes sense. The league could very well end up only sending its tourney winner, maybe one or two more.

This season is very similar to 2011-12, when Colorado beat Arizona in Vegas to get the auto bid and California made it in as an at-large. Meanwhile, regular-season champion Washington was relegated to the NIT, as was Arizona.

Coincidentally, Arizona had the same record (14-7, 5-3) at this point in the season.

Like this year’s squad, the 2011-12 Wildcats were expected to struggle after losing Derrick Williams and MoMo Jones from a team that made a surprise run to the Elite Eight. Miller recalled the difficulties that team faced, along with that of his first team in 2009-10 that he said “had to rally” just finish above .500.

“Understanding who we are where we’re at is very important,” Miller said. “And for us, it’s so much about improving, being as ready as we can be for Arizona State. Things that have happened in the past, that’s the past. We have to live in 2018.”