Now, after Thursday night’s buzzer-beating win at Oregon State gave Arizona a three-game win streak, suddenly its conference tourney prospects are looking much better.
How much better? If things go a certain way over the next nine days, the Wildcats may not have play during that first day of competition in Las Vegas.
As it stands, Arizona (17-12, 8-8) is tied with Stanford and USC for sixth place, and if the regular season ended today the Wildcats would end up with the No. 7 seed via tiebreakers. That would match them against No. 10 Oregon—who they face Saturday night in Eugene—in the Pac-12 tourney’s first round on Wednesday, March 14.
Arizona hasn’t played on the first day of the tournament since 2008, when it was the Pac-10 and only the bottom four teams had to play on Wednesday. Seventh-seeded Arizona beat No. 10 Oregon State 87-56 but then lost 75-64 to No. 2 Stanford the next night.
A loss Saturday to the Ducks, who beat Arizona 59-54 in Tucson and are coming off a 79-51 beatdown of ASU, and the Wildcats would be locked into that first round and could still finish as low as 10th. But a win at Oregon keeps alive the prospect of finishing in the top four, a distinction that comes with a much-coveted first-round bye.
Only twice has a team forced to play four games in four days won the Pac-10/12 tourney, the last one being Colorado in 2012 when as the No. 6 seed it beat fourth-seeded Arizona in the final. And with the Wildcats’ only real chance of making it to the NCAA tournament coming via an automatic bid, having to play one less game to earn that bid would be ideal.
So, how can that happen for Arizona? The first step is winning Saturday at Oregon, which last happened in 2015, and then beat ASU at home on March 9.
If only that was all it took. Unfortunately, Arizona would need a lot of help from a lot of teams to sneak into the top four.
Of the 13 remaining league games not involving the Wildcats, only Saturday’s Washington State/California matchup in Berkeley won’t have an effect on Arizona’s seed. The game is effectively meaningless because Wazzu and Cal are locked into the 11th and 12th seeds, respectively.
Any scenario in which Arizona would have a shot at a top-four finish would involve tiebreakers, which would be good if they included Oregon State or Stanford (teams the Wildcats swept) and bad if they involved UCLA or USC (teams Arizona went 0-1 against). Assuming Arizona wins out, it would have split against ASU, Colorado and Utah.
With that in mind, here are three ways Arizona can earn a first-round bye:
Scenario A (No. 4 seed)
Arizona beats Oregon and ASU. ASU wins at Oregon State before losing in Tucson. OSU loses at Washington but wins at Wazzu. Utah wins at Colorado and either sweeps the Los Angeles schools at home or splits, as long as it beats UCLA. UCLA gets swept on the road by the Rocky Mountain schools. Stanford loses at home to Washington. USC either splits in the mountains or is swept. Colorado wins no more than two of its final three games, but one of those wins is over UCLA. Arizona and OSU tie for fourth place, with Arizona’s sweep of the Beavers serving as the tiebreaker.
Scenario B (No. 3 seed)
Arizona beats Oregon and ASU. ASU wins at Oregon State before falling to the Wildcats. OSU’s only remaining win comes at Wazzu. Utah loses at Colorado and splits with the LA schools, beating UCLA. UCLA loses both games in the Mountains. Stanford loses to Washington. USC loses at Utah but beats Colorado. Colorado beats Utah and UCLA but loses to the Trojans. Arizona ends up in a three-way tie with OSU and Utah, and its combined 3-1 record against the Beavers and Utes becomes the deciding factor.
Scenario C (No. 2 seed)
Arizona wins out, its victory over ASU coming after the Sun Devils lose at Oregon State. The Beavers get swept at the Washington schools. Utah loses to Colorado and USC but beats UCLA. UCLA gets swept in the mountains. Stanford loses to Washington. USC beats Utah but loses at Colorado. Colorado wins out at home against Utah and the LA schools. That creates a massive five-way tie for second between Arizona, ASU, Colorado, OSU and Utah in which Devonaire Doutrive’s tip shot in Corvallis (thus completing a sweep of the Beavers) gives the Wildcats a 5-3 mark against the other four schools while no one else is better than .500 among the rest.
Get all that? There will be a test on Sunday if Arizona manages to knock off Oregon. If it loses to the Ducks, let’s pretend all of this research never happened.