Devils burst the Wildcats’ bubble
TEMPE, Ariz. — Before Sunday’s 87-80 loss at ASU, Arizona was pretty convinced it needed to win the Pac-12 Conference Tournament if it wanted to get invited to NCAA’s big dance.
Now, there’s no doubt about whether or not they need to.
The Wildcats put together their worst defensive effort of the season, allowing an ASU team that averages just 60 points per game to have its way with them. Arizona couldn’t generate offense when it needed to, missing a layup and a 7-foot jumper in the game’s final minute.
Arizona became the second ASU opponent this year to turn the ball over more times than the Sun Devils. In short, everything that had the Wildcats in a position to earn an at-large bid — great defense, taking care of the basketball and clutch offense — worked against them on Sunday.
If there were any doubts about whether Arizona stood as an NCAA Tournament bubble team, the Wildcats did everything in their power to erase them.
“We’re not good enough to be an NCAA Tournament team right now,” head coach Sean Miller said. “That’s not to say that we’ve waved the white flag. … You have to earn your way into the tournament — there are no politics.”
The worst part is the Wildcats had a chance to keep a leg up on the other 12 or so teams that are going to be sweating out Selection Sunday. But Arizona didn’t do what those teams likely would have — beat one of the worst teams from one of the worst conferences in a far-from-hostile environment.
“We just popped the bubble,” Arizona forward Solomon Hill said.
Now Arizona faces as pressure-packed a task as any team in America if it wants to join in on March Madness for the second consecutive year. The Wildcats’ first game in the Pac-12 Tournament will likely come against UCLA (barring an upset against USC on Wednesday) — a team that’s one of the worst possible matchups for Arizona in the conference. With its inside size in the Wear twins and the 6-foot-10, 310 pound Joshua Smith, UCLA shouldn’t have much trouble duplicating the performance that ASU had on Sunday, scoring 44 points in the paint.
But, should it survive that tilt, Arizona would then likely have to take on Washington — an uber-athletic team that swept the Wildcats this season. Freshman guard Tony Wroten, sophomore guard Terrence Ross and junior center Aziz N’Diaye abused Arizona in both of those games.
A win on Sunday, plus maybe one more win the Pac-12 tournment, would likely have secured a NCAA tournament berth for the UA. Now Arizona has to run the gauntlet, and it has to do that while missing out on every one of its conference’s should-be wins.
But this isn’t a team that’s done things the easy way this season. Arizona started the conference season by splitting each of the first four weekend series. Then, it rattled off back-to-back sweeps and won seven of eight games.
“It’s back to practice tomorrow,” UA guard Kyle Fogg said. “We’re gonna have to get ready to go to L.A. and try to take the whole thing.”
It’s a good thing for Arizona that its players were already banking on a Pac-12 Conference Tournament win to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Maybe, for some reason, the Wildcats overlooked ASU despite more than a week to prepare.
Maybe it’s time for the Wildcats to write the next chapter in the book of crazy they’ve been putting together for the last two seasons. But if it happens, it’s going to come in a span that sees the Wildcats play three games in as many days — a rigorous task for anyone in the country.
“It’s always about winning every game,” Hill said.
Except Arizona usually has another option. A loss wouldn’t mean the end of the season. There was a chance to rebound during the next weekend, a chance to put on a performance that mesmerized the NCAA Selection Committee.
Now that chance is gone.