LAS VEGAS — It all comes down to this.
The Arizona Wildcats will either make an improbable run in Las Vegas and win the Pac-12 Tournament, to salvage a dreadful season, or they will fall short and mercifully end one of the worst seasons in recent history.
Entering as the No. 9 seed, the latter is much more likely than the former, but here are reasons why Arizona can — and can’t — win the Pac-12 Tournament.
Why Arizona can win the Pac-12 Tournament
The conference is weak
There are no dominant teams in the Pac-12, as it enters the postseason without one school in the Top 25. Thus, anyone can beat anyone, evidenced by the fact last-place Cal knocked off first-place Washington a couple weeks ago.
And while the Huskies are trumpeted as the class of the conference, they aren’t playing their best basketball entering the postseason, having split their last four games including a home loss to the Oregon Ducks.
What was it that Rawle Alkins called T-Mobile Arena last year? Oh, right. McKale Center Junior.
Las Vegas is a friendly place for the Wildcats, whose fans regularly dominate the scene at the Pac-12 Tournament, giving them a notable homecourt advantage.
Maybe it will be a little different this year because Arizona is having a down season and its first game is Wednesday at noon, but the Wildcats should have more fans pulling for them than not, especially since USC hardly had any presence at T-Mobile Arena last year.
One interesting dynamic is if non-Arizona fans will pull for the Wildcats if, say, they face No. 1-seeded Washington in the second round, though I tend to believe that will be one case in which fans will not be pulling for the underdog.
Between the off-the-court scandals and their historical dominance (more on that in a second), the Wildcats are not exactly a lovable loser for other Pac-12 fan bases.
Arizona is at full health
The Wildcats have been marred by injuries throughout Pac-12 play. First it was Chase Jeter’s back injury. Then it was Brandon Williams’ knee flaring up. Then it was Jeter tweaking his own knee.
Williams missed six games, while Jeter missed two and has been limited in several others. Arizona does not have an abundance of talent or depth this season, so its play has tapered off significantly when either Williams or Jeter, arguably its two best players, have been sidelined.
For reference, the Wildcats are 16-7 when both are in action and 1-7 when they are not, that lone win coming against lowly Cal.
Both are healthy heading into the Pac-12 Tournament (Jeter isn’t quite 100 percent, but he is steadily improving), meaning Arizona will at least be able to put its best product on the court in Vegas.
History of winning
As Sean Miller noted a couple weeks ago, the Wildcats know how to win in Las Vegas. Or at least previous iterations did.
Arizona has reached the Pac-12 Tournament championship game five times since the conference expanded to 12 teams in the 2011-12 season, and has won the whole darn thing three times in the last four years.
Of course, none of the current players had a big hand in that. Ira Lee, Brandon Randolph and Alex Barcello were part of last year’s championship team, but they had minimal roles at best.
“This is a brand-new team, just because we won in the past doesn’t mean anything, but I do think our team has a sense of confidence,” Miller said. “We have a number of players who’ve never lost in Vegas, who’ve watched us win three games in three days. So we’ll see.”
Why Arizona can’t win the Pac-12 Tournament
They are guaranteed to face Washington should they advance
While I mentioned earlier that there are no dominant teams in the Pac-12, Washington is still the cream of the crop, sitting at 47th in KenPom’s ratings, 14 spots higher than the next Pac-12 team (ASU). And there is no way for the Wildcats to avoid the Huskies, since Arizona is the No. 8 seed and Washington is the No. 1.
Therefore it’s hard to be optimistic about Arizona, the third-worst offensive team in the conference, making a deep run in Vegas when it will have to take down the team with the conference’s best defense on a neutral-ish court. Especially when that defense is a zone.
Four games in four days is taxing for a team whose best players have been in and out of the lineup
Williams and Jeter might be healthy heading into Vegas, but it remains to be seen how they — or the rest of the team — hold up if Arizona has to play in consecutive days.
And obviously if Arizona does advance and play Washington in the second round, the Wildcats will be playing their second game in as many days, while the Huskies will be playing their first game since last Saturday.
Weak in the paint
Even in this era of pace-and-space basketball, controlling the paint is a must for any team to have success and, frankly, the Wildcats have been terrible at it.
Their offense and defense ranks 11th and 10th, respectively, in the Pac-12 in 2-point shooting. That is a big problem since Arizona will have to face USC’s Nick Rakocevic in the opening round and then Washington’s Noah Dickerson in the second round should it advance.
Having a healthier Jeter will help, but it is not a total solution. And Arizona’s struggles in the paint become even more problematic when you consider how bad of a shooting team they are. Which brings me to my next point...
Hot shooting nights are rare for the Wildcats
Sometimes a prolific shooting night is all it takes for an upset to occur. Look at UMBC beating Virginia in the NCAA Tournament last year.
The problem is the Wildcats rarely have those kinds of nights. They have only shot above 36 percent from 3 twice in their last nine games. For the season, Arizona only shoots 34 percent from distance.
“We have to play really good offense,” Miller said. “You would have to be able to point to that we played above our our head, so to speak, we overachieved on the offensive end. Sometimes it’s free throw shooting. One game you go 22 for 25 from the foul line and you win by one point. But we have to find a way. I do think there’s probably six teams that join this Pac-12 Tournament that are capable of winning three or four games.”
Is Arizona one of them? Miller didn’t inspire much confidence when he was asked that Monday.
“Two things that we have to be able to control is just playing with great pride and alongside that pride is playing with great effort,” he said. “To look past your first opportunity is foolish whether you’re the one seed or the 12 seed. If you lose, you’re done so we hope that we can play a good game, be at our best and play with that pride and with great effort on Wednesday at noon. The game will be here before you know it.”