Tag Archives: Sean Miller

Pac-12 Embarrassment at the NCAA Tournament

Being a fan and writer of the Pac-12 Conference I want the conference to do well when the chips are on the line for its teams, but after viewing the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament I had to come to conclusion that the Pac-12 just was not very good in 2016. Was the Pac-12 overrated by the tournament committee? I think so. Were they over seeded? Most definitely.

Watching plenty of Pac-12 basketball this year I saw that the conference was very average, but not horrible in any respect. I thought we would get about five or six teams into the Big Dance, but I thought any more than that would be over stretching the talent level in the conference. Now, I am not saying that the talent level was absolutely lacking, but lets face facts here, the college game has become diluted due to the “one and done” player.

Watching the Pac-12 perform over the weekend I thought,  “Am I being punked here?” It didn’t appear to be the same conference I had seen during the regular season and they paid a heavy price in this year’s Tournament.

The NCAA Tournament has not been kind to Pac-12 in the past and once again it wasn’t in 2016. The last team standing are the Oregon Ducks, the number one seed in the West region, and almost the first number one seed to bow out. The Ducks got all they wanted from a determined Saint Joseph team on Sunday night and now have a date with the Duke Blue Devils.

Just about every time March Madness rolls around the Pac-12 sends a couple of legit prospects to the dance and just about every time thereafter the conference is let down by those prospects. The expectations are not even met, forget about the teams even coming close to exceeding them.

What really cemented the Pac-12 as being largely overrated for this tournament was on Saturday night when three seed Utah, was crushed by 11 seed Gonzaga. Saying the Utes were crushed is putting it politely. It also may have proved the point about how some of these Pac-12 teams may have been overvalued by the committee. The final score of the Utah/Gonzaga game 82-59. Really? The seeding for that game should have been flip flopped. The Utes played like they were the 11 seed and Gonzaga played like they were the tougher three seed.

Say what you want about Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few, but he gets his teams ready to play regardless of their seeding and it showed against Utah.

The conference got seven teams into the Tournament and most of those teams were bounced in the first round. Oregon State, Arizona, California, USC and Colorado were all put to rest on Thursday and Friday. Only Oregon and Utah were left standing at that point.

Oregon is left holding up the conference flag at this point and to say that they are a difficult number one seed to bounce out may be a bit of a lie at this point. After their performance against Saint Joseph, picking Duke to win against Oregon is not a big stretch to take. I do think that match-ups matter for teams as well, so for the teams that were bounced early let’s take a look at their individual games.

Oregon State: The Beavers were a pretty good story for the conference. It was the first time they had been invited to the Tournament in 26 years and had played some decent basketball, but a seven seed? Really? They were matched up against a Virginia Commonwealth team that had been to the tournament before, had some success, but were regulated to a 10 seed. Oregon State was certainly over seeded, no doubt about it.

Arizona: Being a six seed for the Wildcats was something that wasn’t really looked at as a bad thing by their fans. I did not hear many complaints coming from Tucson about it, but their downfall was playing a Wichita State team that wasn’t playing like an 11 seed. They were playing more like a five or six seed. The Cats were not even favored in that game.

Utah: For a team that I thought had the potential of getting to the Final Four, they really screwed the pooch against Gonzaga and this was only a couple of games removed from getting waxed by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game.

California: The Golden Bears were dealt a major blow by having their point guard, Ty Wallace, suffer a broken hand a day before their first round game. He was their Senior leader, he filled up the stat sheet for them, and then in a blink of an eye he was gone. That’s the reason, not an excuse for them because they still had enough talent to win that game.

USC: They were in a tough match up with Providence and then lose at the buzzer. It was the 8 seed versus the 9 seed and those games are a toss-up as it is, but in this game Providence was the better team. USC underperformed in my opinion all year with the good talent that they have on that squad.

Colorado: Sometimes the better team just underperforms. It was a pick’em type of game with Connecticut and the Buffs just didn’t play to their capabilities. When you don’t come to play, negative things happen and they did for Colorado.

In the end, the Pac-12 needs to have better showings in the Tournament than they have been giving us. The committee will remember this next year and may not give the Pac-12 the benefit of the doubt. Even though they are supposed to evaluate a team on their merits for that year I am almost certain that they will remember putting seven teams into the Tournament and remembering that six were out by the end of the first weekend of play. That will play a part in their thinking next year.

Imagine if Oregon had lost to Saint Joesph. What would people be thinking of the Pac-12 then? Let that thought swish around in your head for a bit.

Email Mike at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @pigskinopinion.

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The Man in the Middle for the Utah Utes: Jakob Poeltl

Jakob Poeltl. Jakob who? If you haven’t heard of this young man that is a shame, but it is certainly understandable as well. This young sophomore center for the Utah Utes is one of those players that just goes about his business on the basketball court, doesn’t make a fuss about it, and can flat out dominate a game. He is up for Pac-12 Player of the Year and should certainly be in the conversation for All-American status in 2016. Poeltl is a player that people should start focusing on as the Pac-12 Tournament gets going this week and then the NCAA Tournament gets rolling.

The anchor down low for the Utah Utes is a player that people will notice because of his size, but not necessarily notice the stats he puts up. Why is that? For one, Poeltl is a very quiet, unassuming type of kid. He’s not really out there pounding his chest saying “Look at me!” He lets his statistics just speak for themselves and they have spoken loud and clear this season for the Utes. He nearly averaging a double-double this season while creating defensive nightmares for opposing teams in the Pac-12.

Currently, Jakob Poeltl is averaging 17.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, and 1.9 apg. His field goal percentage is off the charts as well at 66 percent, but it also helps that he is seven feet tall to help maintain that high percentage. He averages nearly two blocks a game and that helps to create that presence in the middle for Utah. If one of their guards gets beat on the perimeter, Poeltl is there for help and to send a shot back if necessary.

Jakob Poeltl is a slight seven-footer. He’s not tipping the scales at 275-plus, he’s only weighing in at 235 pounds, so he’s a guy that can be pushed around by bigger, stronger guys in the low post. Obviously, getting bigger in size and weight is going to be something as he progresses through his college years and into the NBA. This is the one area in his game that he needs to pay attention to because coaches want their big men around the basket and not settling for their outside game. Coaches want a low post presence when they have a seven-footer.

Can he add the weight? Let’s hope so. Otherwise people may start to look at him as one of those typical European players who is strictly an “outside” big man and not somebody that can pound the inside on the offensive end.

Jakob Poeltl excels on the defensive end of the court. His coaches love the fact that he doesn’t allow other big men to get set up deep on their offensive end. He doesn’t allow that deep seal set up and has learned how to push the opposing big man off his desired spot on the block. Just ask Arizona center, Kaleb Tarczewski about how effective Poeltl was against him. Tarczewski was bottled up against Poeltl when the two Pac-12 giants played each other.

What are his chances at ending up in the NBA? According to some NBA scouts, he should be a Top 10 NBA Draft pick in 2016, if he comes out early. Some mock drafts have him in the top five, some have him the top 10. It depends on which mock drafts you look at. Scouts love the defensive presence that he has already. They love that he has a high ceiling, and that he can still get much better on the offensive side of the ball. He will certainly be an intriguing player to watch in the NBA Draft Lottery.

First thing is first though. He has to complete his sophomore season at Utah and try to get his Utes to win the Pac-12 Tournament, then get his team to make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament. The more success the Utah Utes have, the more name recognition Jakob Poeltl will have amongst basketball fans. I, for one, am already sold on this young man from Austria, but now it’s time for the rest of the country to be sold on Jakob Poeltl.

The Definition of a Team: Mesa Jackrabbits

Everybody likes a winner, especially in sports. It’s why we watch the sports we do, but when it’s high school sports it can be a little different. Students who play sports in high school are playing their respective sports because they enjoy it, for the love of the game, and it’s a way for that athlete to make their mark in high school. There is always a chance that these athletes can take their talents to the collegiate level or even higher, but for most athletes, high school is where it ends for them, so these young men and young women play their hearts out.

In Mesa, Arizona there is a high school that embodies what is so right with high school basketball. The Mesa High Jackrabbits are a team in every sense of the word. From the coaches, to the players, to the manager of the team nobody is bigger than the next guy. They look out for each other, they encourage each other when things don’t go the way the team envisioned, and most importantly they hold each other accountable on the court and outside the court.

“You take care of the little things, big things will happen for us.” Said Head Coach Shane Burcar during a recent practice.

Is that “coach speak”? Absolutely, but the way Burcar coaches his players, they understand the message behind it.

The Jackrabbits have hovered in the top three in the whole state the whole season at the biggest division level in the state of Arizona and are looking for another state title to hang in their well cluttered gymnasium of banners.

When you think of a team you follow winning a championship there are many things that probably come to mind about that team. The team has good offensive players, plays excellent defense, or has such good chemistry that it can overcome most problems that come the team’s way during the march to a title.

This year’s version of the Mesa High Jackrabbits remind me of several teams in college basketballs gloried past. The Jackrabbits are a team with no big-time division-one type of players where you can sit there and say to yourself “that’s the guy that will rescue the team if needed.” Nope, what you have is a team like Villanova that has a collection of guys that play as a team and have each other’s back in tough times.

That Villanova team played a highly-daunted team in the Georgetown Hoyas in 1985, where the Hoyas were the overwhelming favorite and they were the team that everybody hated with a passion. Before that game, Nova Head Coach Rollie Massimino said some things to his players before they took the floor.

“One, do not play to lose. Play to win. Two, you are good enough to win. You can beat anybody in the country. Believe it.” Coach Massimino told his players in 1985.

These are the same thoughts that Head Coach Shane Burcar impresses upon his players on an everyday basis. Burcar is tough on his players, but the Mesa players understand the reason behind his madness. Like Massimino, Coach Burcar never wants his players to doubt themselves when it comes to their opponents even though the talent level may not be what it has been in the past for the team.

In the last three games of the state tournament, the Jackrabbits have what Arizona Wildcats have in terms of not having one true ace in the hole type of player, but a team full of guys who know their role on the team and understand their role for the betterment of the team. The Wildcats lost a lot of talent to the NBA and graduation and to replace that talent takes a massive effort on the recruiting trail. However, has that slowed down the Cats at all? Not really. Do they have a few more losses than last season? Yes, but they are still going to NCAA Tournament and have a great chance to win the Pac-12.

Coach Burcar tells his team at every practice and game that they are no different from the other team.

“You guys will take it to Basha tonight. Take no prisoners!” Coach Burcar yelled enthusiastically at his players before they took floor in the state semi-final game.

The Jackrabbits certainly took it to Basha High School who had a bunch of AAU-type players who were good athletes, but lacked fundamental basketball skills. It was apparent from the start of that semi-final game that if Mesa could get up on them and frustrate them a little bit, then Basha would crumble. That is exactly what happened. Mesa had more hustle for loose balls, timely shot making, good free throw shooting, and most importantly big stops on the defensive end of the floor.

Mesa High locks its opponents down on the defensive end and creates an atmosphere of frustration for their opponent. Once this frustration sets in for the opposition, Mesa has its opponent exactly where it wants them. In this case, it is very much like the Arkansas Razorbacks back in the 1990’s coached by Nolan Richardson where it was termed “40 minutes of hell”.

The Razorbacks would press the heck out of any team they played, they would play the passing lanes, and make life miserable for the other team. Like I said, Mesa gets its opposition frustrated with a relentless attack defensively and you soon see players from the other teams complaining to the refs, complaining to their teammates, and just flustered to the point of giving up.

A mark of a championship team is its ability to go out and impose its will on its opponent. On Monday night, the Mesa High Jackrabbits went out and took the championship from their opponent. Like the Duke teams of the past, where Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, and Grant Hill took any momentum in the arena, the Jackrabbits grabbed all the momentum from Sunnyslope High School right before halftime.

Drew Hatch hit a Steph Curry type three-pointer at the halftime buzzer to pull Mesa within four. The halftime score was 27-23 and the throng of Mesa fans went nuts. From there, the Jackrabbits had all the momentum to come out in second half and gradually take the lead from Sunnyslope.

The pressure defense that had been Mesa’s trademark all tournament long, and probably all season long shut down the opposition’s players who were known for bombing three-pointers. Mesa wasn’t going to let them get any clean looks at a three ball and from there the frustration on the opponents face was increasingly becoming apparent.

In the end, Mesa did what they needed to do to win the Arizona State Championship, 51-48, and put themselves into the storied history of Mesa High athletics. Fear the Hop Mesa players and coaches, you are the champs and nobody, absolutely nobody can ever take that from you. Carry On!

Pac-12 Basketball: Who Gets into the Big Dance?

Basketball is played out here in the West, many people may forget about that. That is understandable since teams out here in the Pac-12, outside of the Arizona Wildcats or the UCLA Bruins don’t have any name brand recognition when it comes to basketball. It’s a tough road for the Pac-12 in basketball. Their games come on late in the east, the teams are not winning titles, and most people who follow college basketball don’t regard the conference as one high in talent. The urge to watch Pac-12 basketball is not there. That is especially the case in 2015-2016 with the Pac-12. However, the talk that I hear is that seven or eight teams may make the NCAA Tournament. Really? Does the Pac-12 really have that many teams that are “Big Dance” worthy? Let’s explore.

When you talk Pac-12 basketball, there is always ONE team that comes to mind. The Arizona Wildcats are the brand of the Pac-12. No question to me. Ever since Lute Olson took over the program and now with Sean Miller, the Wildcats have had the most talent, been ranked high, and gone deep into the tournament

Do they deserve a bid this year? Absolutely, without question. Even though they lost a ton of talent from last year’s squad, they are still at the top of the Pac-12 Conference. However, they have struggled this year to really separate themselves from the rest of the conference because of the lack of “lights out talent” they have enjoyed in past years. The Cats will get in, they have quality wins, they have an excellent shot at winning the conference tournament, and depending on match-ups in the Big Dance, they could create some anxious moments for teams the deeper they go in the tournament.

The Oregon Ducks. Well, people like seeing them because of what? The uniforms. Having seen this team in person, I heard many a fan say “I wonder what the uniforms will look like tonight?” and to that I merely laughed. Until Oregon goes deep in the tournament multiple times, that is what the fans will be asking.

Do they get into the tournament? No doubt about it. They have the record to get in. The Ducks are 22-6, 11-4 in the Pac-12 right now and have some people thinking they are dark horse to get to the Final Four. I am not sure I would go that far with Oregon, but they have athletes. They’ve got a solid point guard, in sophomore Casey Benson, good big men in Dwayne Benjamin and Dillon Brooks, and a quality Head Coach in Dana Altman. The one thing the Ducks lack is a prototypical big man. Their post players are slight in stature and will be pushed around by a big man of size when the tournament starts. The Ducks get into the tournament with no problem, but how far they go is anybody’s guess.

The Utah Utes will get into the tournament as well. They are in second place in the Pac-12 and have a huge game with Arizona coming up to determine the final standings in the conference. The Utes have a 22-7 overall record and 11-5 conference record, so they will get a bid. The Utes are solid team, with solid players, but I am not sure if they will strike fear in too many teams when the conference tournament or the NCAA tournament starts. At most, I see Utah getting to the round of 16 in the Big Dance. To go any further they need good match-ups and/or some upsets to occur. Bottom line, they will need some help to advance deep in the NCAA tournament.

Here come the Trojans. The Trojans have some great bigs who are athletic. They have four guys over 6’10” who are long, athletic, and can play ball. To me the Trojans are on the “bubble” to get into the NCAA Tournament. They have an overall record of 19-9, but have a conference record of 8-7. When you are barely above the break-even mark in college basketball in your own conference the trip to the tourney is riddled with doubt. The Trojans have a must-win game against California that they have to get. For the Trojans to get this much-needed win they need to execute their offense on a high level. Head Coach Andy Enfield has shown concern for this execution at different points in the year.

“Our effort level is good but our execution is not good sometimes. We have never had to coach effort with this team, but execution wins games,” said Head Coach Andy Enfield.

The road to the Pac-12 Tournament is not easy either. The Trojans finish up with the Oregon schools, both of whom have beaten them already this season. Oregon State can certainly compete with USC and play a major spoiler role for them. The Ducks are currently leading the conference and will be looking to carry momentum into postseason play.

The California Golden Bears are wanting to make the Big Dance as well and in my opinion they should make it. With an overall record of 20-8 and a conference record 10-5 the Golden Bears will be looking to solidify their position by beating USC on Sunday. One of things that California certainly has going for itself is that it has beaten all of the Pac-12 teams currently ranked, Arizona, Oregon, and Utah. Those are three impressive wins for the tournament committee to look at. They are also one more weekend sweep away from finishing in the Top 25, which would be a great step forward for a program that has not finished in the Top 25 in quite a long time. Should the Golden Bears get into the tourney? I believe so. They have the wins, the record, and the steady play to garner an invite.

Last, but certainly not least, there are the Colorado Buffaloes. I also believe they get in, but in my opinion they just might be one of the most overlooked teams in the country. Why? With a Pac-12 Conference being a bit down this year, that doesn’t help, but being in Colorado doesn’t help either. With an overall record of 20-9, a conference record of 9-7, and some quality wins against Arizona, California, Stanford, and Oregon the Buffaloes should have enough to get into the tournament, maybe a 10-12 seed. Senior Josh Scott will do everything in his power to maintain the steadiness that he has given them all season. He is the Buffs leading scorer and rebounder for the second time during his tenure at Colorado. His leadership has helped the Buffs develop as a team and he tries to lead by being a vocal example.

“One thing for me this year is that if you have the experience, you have to share those experiences. I’ve tried to be vocal about everything,” Josh Scott said.

With a game against Arizona State on Sunday, the Buffaloes should lock up their third NCAA invite in four seasons. They do have a remaining game against rival Utah that will be a highly entertaining game. If they get that win, they should have no doubt about getting into the Big Dance.

All in all, the teams that have been mentioned should be in, with USC being the only one that may be on the bubble. Since the Pac-12 is down this year, I don’t see any of these teams making a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. Some people think the conference gets as many as eight teams into the tournament. I say no way. After Arizona, California, Colorado, all of them need better players, recruiting, and wins against other big Power 5 teams to garner that type of consideration. I am Pac-12 fan and want to see the conference succeed on a national level, but I am also a realist. If the conference doesn’t have it with its talent level, then we don’t have it. Doesn’t mean we won’t get it, but it just means players and coaches will have to work harder to get that success for the Pac-12.

Arizona Dominates Arizona State in The Territorial Cup

When it comes to the Territorial Cup in the state of Arizona it gets pretty intense with players, coaches, and fans. There have been confrontations on the court between players, coaches being ejected, upsets, and all sorts of colorful adjectives being hurled at each team. This is an intense rivalry game and it doesn’t matter the sport. People mention a hatred toward their rival and it’s not something that they joke about. It is a hatred for that other school. Wednesday night in Tucson, Arizona was another edition of this rivalry on the basketball court.

Arizona came into this game needing to continue their winning ways because their thought is another conference title and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Qualifying for the big dance is not going to be an issue for the Arizona Wildcats, but questions are floating out there about how talented this Arizona team actually is. The Wildcats don’t exactly have that show-stopping talent that they have had in recent years, but for a game like the one against their rival Arizona State they had more than enough talent to compete.

Arizona State is just a team trying to hang on until the end of the season. For a good portion of the season the Sun Devils they have been playing with only eight scholarship players. Injuries have also taken a toll on Bobby Hurley’s team. Anybody that knows anything about basketball knows that if your team is injured and you have only eight guys that can play winning is going to be a challenge.

It was a challenge on Wednesday night for the Sun Devils.

Not only did the Wildcats have a talent edge, they had a size advantage over the Sun Devils. They made their inside presence felt most of the night by blocking shot after shot out of the air. Midway through the second half the Wildcats already had seven blocks, with Kaleb Tarczewski owning three of those.

Kaleb Tarczewski. If you follow Pac-12 basketball you know who this player is. If you follow college basketball in general you should know who he is. The Sun Devils knew who he was and couldn’t do anything to stop him. He was ready to play and so was the rest of the Wildcat team. Tarczewski finished the game with 6 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 blocks. He made life miserable for the Sun Devil offense all evening.

The Sun Devils were not ready to play and it showed. When you shoot worse from two-point range than three-point range things will not work out for your team. That is exactly what happened to the Devils on Wednesday night. The Sun Devils shot 32% from two point range and 34% from three point range. This showed in the first half with the Sun Devils down by 14 points at half 38-24 which when you consider everything that the Wildcats did it was a gift only being down 14.

The second half was Wildcat domination in every facet of the game. In fact, with about 15 minutes left in the game Sun Devil Head Coach Bobby Hurley who is usually up and barking at the referees retired to his seat on the Arizona State bench and didn’t say a word.

Hurley was looking at what he wants for his own program in Tempe. Hurley wants players to flock to Arizona State to play basketball and provide the level of excitement the players at Arizona give their fans. What does Hurley need to do to make the basketball Territorial Cup more of a rivalry? Simple. To quote Al Davis, “Just win baby.” The winning is going to take some time because ASU does not have the history that history that Arizona has when it comes to basketball. Big time recruits want to play where they are going to win and ASU doesn’t provide that yet. Sun Devil fans hope Bobby Hurley can bring that type of swag to their program.

By the time this edition of the Territorial Cup was over the Wildcats showed everybody in the Pac-12 that they are not going anywhere and will do whatever they needed to do to secure another conference title. Arizona shot 57% from the field, 72% from the free throw line, dominated on the boards 52-27, and dominated on the scoreboard 99-61. If the Wildcats turn in this type of performance the remainder of the season then things will turn out well for them. Bear Down Arizona!

Arizona Wildcats: Pac-12’s Best Hope in the Tournament

Every March the hopes of all college basketball fans get dashed and fulfilled by what we affectionately call March Madness. This year will be no different. There is only one team that goes on a six game winning streak to end the year. Will your team be the one? One can only hope, right? In the Pac-12, the one realistic hope the conference has is the Arizona Wildcats. The Cats have shown consistently this year that they can beat the best teams in front of them. The Pac-12 had a down year, but in the end, the Wildcats beat who they had to. There is a tough streak in these Cats that will serve them well going forward in the tournament.

Arizona is the only team with a winning record versus top 25 competition in the Pac-12 this year. Every other conference team is way below the .500 mark against the best teams in the country. That says something about how much talent Head Coach Sean Miller has amassed in Tucson. They beat Gonzaga in an early season match-up, swept Utah (top 20 team) during league play, beat up on UCLA, which is not saying that much, but the Bruins did make the tourney, and they destroyed another tournament team in Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament Championship game. While the Pac-12 did get four teams in, Arizona is really the only team, in my opinion that has a legit shot at winning the title. Even in this year of Kentucky, Arizona can play with anybody on an elite level.

The Wildcats have the type of team that will not get rattled by the ball hawking craziness of Kentucky. One unnamed NBA scout says that the Wildcats that one of Arizona’s strengths lies in their point guard. T.J. McConnell. McConnell was in the running for Pac-12 player of the year, but that’s not what he wants. He wants a title. T.J is a four year starter for Coach Sean Miller and has been through the battles. If the match up with Kentucky happens or even the match up with Wisconsin happens, McConnell will be able to handle the intense pressure that comes with the lose and go home format. The next guy that will create problems for Kentucky, Wisconsin, or anybody else for that matter will be Stanley Johnson.

Stanley Johnson is the much talked about freshman for Arizona. This guy is simply a monster of a player. He has an NBA body ready to order according to NBA scouts and anybody that has seen him play. He is 6’7”, 245lbs, and built like an inside linebacker. Many scouts see him as a starter in “The League” with that kind of body and athletic ability. With the amount of talent that the Wildcats have, he didn’t have to score a lot of points to make an impact. In the end, Johnson averaged 14.1 points per game. If you have plans to cut the nets down at the end, you need a player like this to help counter the talent on the Badgers or those other Wildcats in the Bluegrass State. What else does Arizona have?

One of the best all-around players in the Pac-12 is what they have in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. There are few things that this young player possesses that will make life difficult for anybody or any team that has to game plan for him. He is 6’7”, with a 7-foot wingspan, and would regularly be assigned to guard the best player on the opposing team by Coach Miller. In the end, the best players from the opposition would only average about 12 points a game and shoot an average 35% from the field when Hollis-Jefferson was put on them. There are things you look for in a player, like toughness, and when you are guarding the best from the other team that tells you almost everything you need to know about how the head coach feels about this type of player. The other aspect of Hollis-Jefferson’s game that makes him unique is that he is a dynamic wing player on the offensive end of the floor. He has a slashing, aggressive style that makes him tough to defend. He makes his opponent work extremely hard on defense, so that they are tired on their offensive side of the floor. A dictionary definition of a kid who does a little bit of everything on the floor. He scores, defends, and hits the boards for the Wildcats.

Arizona has some size in the middle as well. To counter any size by Kentucky or Wisconsin, you need size and they have it in Kaleb Tarczewski, their own 7-footer. He doesn’t put up gigantic numbers, but he certainly can run with any big man, and can he play defense. Tarczewski is going to have to come up very big for Arizona if/when they meet up with Kentucky or even Wisconsin during the tournament.

The final thing that Arizona has is their coach. Sean Miller. Some people say that you don’t want to follow a legend at a school, but Sean Miller has and he has embraced it. Even though he’s not the guy to come right after Lute Olson, he’s the guy that has brought prominence back to Tucson. Olson still casts a huge shadow at Arizona, but Miller is starting to cast his own shadow over the program. He’s taken the Cats to the Elite 8 and now is looking to take the next step for his program. He’s a competitive guy who has shown the acumen to game plan very well for an opponent. In my opinion, I know he can match wits with the likes of Calipari, Coach K, or anybody else that he comes across in the course of the tournament.

Keep this in mind as well if you are one of the many people that think this year simply belongs to Kentucky. It’s not a best of 7 series, it is a one and done situation. Anybody on any given night is capable of pulling the major upset. It’s why you play the game. Kentucky is talented, no doubt, but there are other teams out there that can play with them. One of them is certainly the Arizona Wildcats. Bear Down Arizona, Bear Down.

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Arizona and the Pac-12 Trophy

The Pac-12 in basketball can be just like the Pac-12 in football. They feast on one another and there is one left standing so bloodied that they don’t do anything in “The Big Dance”. Of course that leaves fans of the Pac-12 feeling a little underwhelmed or fired up about their program. This year is no different in the Pac-12 Conference. Arizona and Utah are the class of the conference this year and heading into the Conference tournament those will be the two teams that everybody will be looking at to win the tourney.

Arizona always comes into the Pac-12 basketball season as a big favorite to win the league. I remember when I was younger and watching the Lute Olson coached teams running through everybody and easily winning the league. Sure, they may have been upset in the tourney, but as far as the Pac-12 (Pac-10 back then), it was usually a forgone conclusion that the Wildcats would win the conference. The last few years has been no different for Sean Miller and the Arizona Wildcats. They have had a relative simple time with the Pac-12, with a few slip ups against those pesky Beavers, the Runnin’Rebels of UNLV, and the hated rival in Tempe, the Sun Devils. Other than that, the Cats have run by everybody and made it look relatively easy, but the Wildcats will be the first one to tell you that it has not been easy.

It’s never easy being the hunted. Every time they take the court, the other team is playing their “Final Four” game against Arizona. To stay sharp every time they step on the floor is the thing that Head Coach Sean Miller fights to do all the time. For the majority of the season the Cats have been pretty good at staying focused and winning games.

They have also have had some pretty balanced scoring, rebounding, and timely defense to help propel them into the number seven ranking in the country. Stanley Johnson has led the Cats in scoring with almost 15 points a game and has led the Cats in rebounding with almost seven rebounds a game. Right behind him has been the stellar play of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. This dynamic guard has been scoring 11.3 points a game, grabbing 6.5 rebounds a game, getting over a steal a game, and also averaging a block a game. That tells me that this player is all over the court, trying to do whatever he needs to do to win the game at hand. Jefferson is also shooting over 52% from the field. He is clearly the leader on this team. The next person that has been contributing immensely is Brandon Ashley. He is getting over 11 points a game while grabbing over five rebounds a game. Between these three guys and solid contributions from the rest of the team, it has been a season where the Wildcats are trying to separate themselves from the rest of the Pac-12 Conference.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the Cats are a simple lock for the Final Four. There is probably only one team that most people can see as a lock for the Final Four and that is Kentucky. The Cats are not Kentucky by any stretch of the imagination. However, every team out there has a weakness. As I have watched Arizona play this season, one thing sticks out. Free throws. As Bill Schonely , the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the Portland Trail Blazers used to say, “You got to make your free throws.” The Wildcats have not done that consistently this year. The team percentage is under 70%. As we creep closer to tournament basketball, that is a part of the game that becomes so incredibly important. When games are close, this is the part of the game where teams separate themselves from the competition, and close them out. However, when you have a low free throw percentage as team, the other team will extend the game by fouling and taking their chances by forcing you to make shots from the charity stripe. Gabe York is the guy who leads the team in free throw percentage at 78%. If your best guy is not shooting 80% or better from the line, you have some issues. When the Pac-12 tournament starts and certainly when NCAA tournament starts, this will be the thing that may keep the Cats from having great success. It is safe to assume that Sean Miller will be working or has been working on this aspect of their team game to keep disaster from happening.

Can the Wildcats win the Pac-12 Conference tournament title? Absolutely. Can they slip up and lose it? Absolutely. The team that may give them the biggest run for their money in the conference tourney is Utah. Utah is a team that is balanced and spreads the scoring around. The Cats and Utes play on February 28 in Utah. They have already played in Tucson and the Cats beat them handily by 18 points. Revenge is on the mind for the Utes and to show the Cats that they can play with them. Utah is no slouch of an opponent.

The Pac-12 title will either go to Tucson or Salt Lake City in my honest opinion. If someone had to pin me down and force me to say who wins it all, I would say the Arizona Wildcats. They have experience being in these situations, a coach that has been there before, and I think slightly better players. If the Wildcats can make their free throws they should be hoisting the Pac-12 trophy and looking to make some noise in the “Big Dance”.