Arizona one step away from making Sean Miller’s three-year plan into twoby Javier Morales on Mar. 12, 2011, under Sports
LOS ANGELES — Some may argue that Arizona coach Sean Miller has already cut his three-year plan to rebuild the Wildcat program into only two.
After all, the 16th-ranked Wildcats (27-6) have already won the regular-season Pac-10 championship in only Miller’s second year in Tucson.
A win Saturday in the Pac-10 Tournament title game against Washington can solidify, that yes, Miller is a year ahead of schedule. A tournament championship would be the program’s first since 2002. It would mean the Wildcats earn the conference’s automatic bid for the NCAA tournament and — can you believe it? — be only two wins shy from reaching 30 victories.
A loss, and the Wildcats said they will feel unfulfilled.
“Winning this means a lot to us,” Arizona sophomore Kevin Parrom said. “I remember losing to UCLA last year (in the quarterfinals) and we were only here for about 20 hours and then we went home.
“We want to enjoy this experience and have a good time.”
Lute Olson won 21 games in his second year, a historic feat in itself considering Arizona won only four games two years prior. If they win today, the Wildcats must reach the Sweet 16 to notch 30 victories in a season, a feat achieved only three times previously. Not even the 1996-97 national championship team achieved that mark, winning 25 in a Cinderella finish in the NCAA tournament.
“Anytime you get to the conference tournament final, it’s a great day, having a chance to be on a stage like this,” Miller said outside the interview area after Arizona beat USC 67-62 in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals at Staples Center.
“It only enhances our young player’s experience to be at a spot like this. And it prepares us for next week (in the NCAA tournament). We’re excited to move to a championship level, for sure.”
The recruiting ramifications, playing on national TV and in the fertile Los Angeles area, should not be overlooked.
“You know, it’s not something we’re creating,” Miller said. “Our brand, our Arizona history and tradition and those former players and Coach Olson … this is not the first time that we’ve done this.
“Maybe this is more of a reminder that we are back. We’re climbing for that height that we all want to get back to. Certainly we have a long way to go but today’s win and some of the other wins we’ve had recently have helped us move in that direction.”
Leading the Wildcats back in the direction of being among the nation’s elite is Derrick Williams (game-high 20 points against USC) and his resourceful teammates. Eight UA players scored against the Trojans. Jordin Mayes and Jamelle Horne each scored eight points to make up for the lack of scoring from Solomon Hill (no points) and Kyle Fogg (only three).
“Knowing that any of us can step up is huge,” said Parrom, who had six points and six rebounds in 31 minutes. “It gives us the confidence going in knowing anybody from No 1 to 10 can get it done.”
Even reserve center Kyryl Natyazhko was a factor, despite going scoreless. He was often matched against USC post player Nikola Vucevic in relief role for Williams. The All-Pac-10 player from Montenegro posted a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds, but it his performance was not good enough to beat Arizona.
The Wildcats, behind Natyazhko’s size (6-11, 264), Williams’ reach, and the denial of entry passes by the perimeter players, limited Vucevic and frontcourt mate Alex Stepheson to only 19 field-goal attempts, most of them contested.
“The coaches have told me my role is to face the bigger guys, when we play big teams,” Natyazhko said. “I have never heard any criticism. I only listen to my coaches and they want me to step up to the challenge of going against teams with size.”
Williams said the coaches told him to limit Vucevic’s touches.
“If I can limit his catches, I can limit his points,” Williams said. “I just tried to get in his head a little bit and just tried to keep him from scoring.”
USC guard Jio Fontan, who scored 21 points in USC’s victory last month, was held to only 7 on 3-of-7 shooting.