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Still climbing: Miller sees steady improvement after win over UCLA

Jesse Perry

Jesse Perry goes up for two points in the second half vs. UCLA. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

The phrase “if the season ended today” is often used at this time of year. So, let’s play that game: If the season ended today …

The Arizona Wildcats would be in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.

Barely, perhaps. But in.

UA had to have Saturday’s game against UCLA. A loss at this point of the season to a team with a triple-digit RPI would be a great excuse for the selection committee to draw a line through Arizona’s name.

Saturday’s game went a lot like the Cats’ season: Struggle early, muddle through with little margin for error … and then play their best at the end.

“We had a very low starting point this season, and I know we’ve steadily improved,” coach Sean Miller after a 65-63 victory at McKale Center in which the Bruins’ Jerime Anderson missed an 18-foot jumper at the buzzer.

“We’re a much better team right now than we were at any point in January, that’s for sure.”

Still climbing. That’s how Miller says he sees his team. Still climbing that mountain, 31 regular-season games high.

Arizona improved to 21-9 overall and 12-5 in the Pac-12. Good enough? Add one more victory — next Sunday in the regular-season finale at Arizona State — and the Cats figure to have enough juice to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.

Good news is that, with a win at lowly ASU, the Wildcats are guaranteed of a top four finish in the conference, which means a bye in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. And that means UA wouldn’t have to play four games in four days if it managed to reach the title game.

“We have been on the climb,” Miller said.

“You take a step and all of a sudden, this rock falls and hits you and you fall 50 feet. You get back up and keep climbing. That is what we’ve done. We’ve stayed with it.”

A couple of big rocks fell on the Wildcats’ noggins on Jan. 28.

That’s when Arizona lost a two-point home game to Washington and lost forward Kevin Parrom, who was just starting to play like his old self after rehabbing from a September shooting. Worse yet for the Wildcats: They were facing the league’s toughest road trip: Cal and Stanford.

“I know it would be hard to look at us as we went to the Bay Area and say, ‘These guys really have their act together,’” Miller said.

“It was at that moment that we really found ourselves. We’re playing exceptional basketball for our team.”

Beginning with a sweep in the Bay Area, Arizona has won seven of eight games in February. UA is 3-0 in that stretch in games decided by four points or less. The Wildcats’ previous three losses had been by a total of five points.

Just a little natural improvement has made the difference between close losses and close victories.

“We’re 12-5,” Miller said, reciting UA’s league record. “To me, that’s very fulfilling. I believe our team has achieved to its talent level.

“You like to see those seniors get better and really step up. This team, more than any team I’ve been part of, has been a function of seniors really leading and play exceptional basketball at the end. It makes you feel good to see all these guys finish off what they started a long time ago.”

They’re not quite finished, of course.

Junior forward Solomon Hill says there is no sense in thinking about the NCAA Tournament right now.

“All we can think about right now is the conference,” he said.

“It’s still about finishing off strong and putting ourselves in the best position for seeding for the Pac-12 tournament. Then that starts a whole new season for us.”

A whole new mountain.

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