Damn it, Oregon.
Saturday’s game against the Ducks was supposed to be a battle for Pac-12 supremacy. Sure, the winner would not clinch the conference title or anything, but No. 24 Arizona vs. No. 14 Oregon was the marquee matchup.
The Wildcats took care of their end of the bargain by destroying Oregon State, but the Ducks went and lost to Arizona State and, well, things are not as expected.
The game still carries conference championship implications. Should Arizona win one could argue they’d be in the driver’s seat, while the Ducks need a win to stay in contention.
But really, while winning the conference title would be nice for the Wildcats it is not necessarily the goal. This team, with its ups and downs, will be judged by what happens in March.
A win would be a good sign for success next month. Rather, a win would be another good sign for success next month.
They don’t make it easy and it has hardly been pretty, but the Wildcats have won eight of their last 10 games, with a pair of road sweeps accounting for half of the victories. One of their losses during the stretch was the collapse against the Sun Devils, while the other was the fluke against UCLA.
During this stretch Arizona’s defense has improved, with the Cats now being ranked 23rd in that stat on KenPom.
We all know how important defense is.
Of late the Wildcats have also shown an ability to win close games, with Washington and Stanford able to testify. They don’t look terrible against zone defenses, which is a welcome change.
Sean Miller’s squad can also run teams out of the gym, which the Bears, Cougars, Buffaloes and now Beavers have witnessed first-hand.
The win against the Beavers, 89-63 on Thursday, was especially revealing. Focused on redemption (and maybe revenge), the Wildcats took care of business in a way that shows actual growth. They did not look past their lesser opponent nor did they let up. A good start was followed by more good basketball, and the visitors never stood a chance.
Much has been made of Arizona’s youth during the team’s struggles, in print, interviews and podcasts (my own included). The team’s three best players are all freshmen, so growing pains and inconsistency was expected.
Now with 26 games and many more practices under their belts, youth is no longer an excuse. And if Thursday is any indication, they don’t need it to be.
But for all the boxes the Wildcats have somehow been able to check, one that remains is a victory over a top-15 team. While Oregon most certainly won’t be No. 14 when the next poll comes out on Sunday, they are still there right now and that provides Arizona with an opportunity.
Not only will the Ducks be desperate for a win, but they are entering a building where they have experienced success to play a team they beat a little more than one month ago.
For Arizona, that means this game offers a chance at not only redemption and perhaps an inside track at a conference title, but legitimacy. A victory over Oregon would help to validate their KenPom ratings and No. 7 NET ranking.
After Thursday’s win Miller said it will be like March Madness on Saturday, giving a glimpse into how important he views the matchup.
“It’s a late-season game...Oregon, their program speaks for itself,” he said. “I think they were preseason favorite to win the conference. They’ve got an outstanding team and coach and they’ve been in the winner’s circle.”
The Wildcats showed maturity in their win over the Beavers. A win over the desperate Ducks would prove they are capable of beating top teams in what is likely to be a close game.
That would be new and oh-so-important, because by the time Sunday rolls around the Wildcats could be in position for a Pac-12 title as well as a deep tournament run.