LAS VEGAS — A tournament run never ends well, but the Arizona Wildcats’ stay in the Pac-12 tournament was ended more rudely than most, a victim of a comeback by UCLA and plenty of talk about the officials.
Leaving Las Vegas, here are five thoughts on the Cats:
1. I like how the team is playing
It’s been three consecutive games now in which Arizona’s intensity — if not always its execution — has been locked in on defense, which will be the centerpiece of any potential significant stay in the NCAAs. For the first time in a couple of months, I don’t question Arizona’s fire. I like this team a lot more than I did two weeks ago.
Arizona has checked back in emotionally after taking a vacation for most of February. That doesn’t guarantee a trip to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but it’s the right place to start.
The Wildcats who I am seeing now are the Wildcats I saw in the non-conference season. Nick Johnson is rejuvenated. You notice the trio of freshmen big men were 12 of 16 from the field vs. UCLA, with Kaleb Tarczewski matching his career high with 13 rebounds?
“They stepped up big,” said guard Mark Lyons. “They have been playing at a really high level the last five games, and I love those guys.”
Now, Arizona just needs to mix in some of that late-game magic from December …
“If our guys keep the same defensive intensity that we’ve had in this tournament and stay as a team, I think the sky’s the limit for us,” said senior Solomon Hill.
2. Get over Mark Lyons
He is what he is, folks. He might not be the point guard you were looking for, the point guard you were hoping for — because he’s not a point guard at all — but Arizona’s season wouldn’t be what it was without Lyons.
I get it. He’ll drive you nuts with quick 3-pointers. His ball-handling turnover, leading to two Jordan Adams free throws with 1:13 left against UCLA, was a killer.
But whenever your arms start to shake in frustration over Lyons, ask yourself two questions: What were Sean Miller’s options? What are Sean Miller’s options?
Bringing in Lyons from Xavier as a one-year bridge had to be done. Miller couldn’t have gone into this season with Jordin Mayes and shooting guard Nick Johnson at the point.
Has Miller cut Lyons more slack than others this season after some knuckle-headed play? I’d say so, and that’s a tricky chemistry issue, but Miller is trying to walk that fine line because he has to do everything he can to help Lyons push the Cats toward the finish line.
Mayes has played better of late, but 10 minutes or so a game is about his max.
Lyons has hit some big shots, leads the team in scoring. He’s taken charge, or at least tried to, when others were unwilling.
Lyons, maddening though he may be, was and is the best option. Deal with it … and cross your fingers.
3. Stay tuned on Sunday
Arizona, if it had beaten UCLA, probably would have been a No. 3 seed in the West, set on a path to Los Angeles for the second weekend of the tournament.
Now, the Wildcats have left themselves vulnerable.
“This could be the difference between a seed or two,” Hill said after the loss to UCLA. “And that can be a very big difference in trying to make a long run in the tournament.”
Chances are the Cats still get sent to a pod in San Jose or Salt Lake City for the first weekend, but Arizona can’t count on getting any protection or any favors after that.
UCLA deserves a better seed and the more geographically-friendly road than Arizona, but the selection committee now has to consider Jordan Adams’ season-ending injury. So, who knows what it will do?
Bottom line: If the Wildcats don’t like their NCAA Tournament seeding and location Sunday, they have nobody to blame but themselves after splitting their past 10 games.
A road through L.A. would be nice — the other regional final sites are Washington, D.C.; Indianapolis; Arlington, Texas — but don’t count on it.
4. Sean Miller is sincere
Miller could have used more discretion in his postgame press conference — nothing much good ever comes of taking on the officials after a game — but the open, raw emotion was refreshing and honest. Can’t argue with that.
What might have been lost amid the “He touched the ball!” sound bite, was Miller offering credit and expressing admiration for UCLA.
“Ben Howland, the respect I have for him as a coach, you can’t have any more respect,” Miller said.
That played out after the press conference, as Miller walked through the hallways to Arizona’s locker room, passing the UCLA head coach and point guard Larry Drew.
Miller wished Howland well, asked about the injured Adams and turned to Drew.
“I’m glad I never have to coach against you again,” Miller told Drew with respect.
Drew replied that Miller’s compliment meant a lot to him, and then Howland turned to Drew and said of Miller, “This guy was a (bleeping) great point guard.”
Miller said something to the effect that he didn’t feel like a (bleeping) great coach right then.
5. It stays in Vegas
The Pac-12 has a contract to play at the MGM Grand for two more seasons, and let me add to the chorus of voices touting the tournament’s move from Los Angeles.
The energy in the Garden Arena was something like a gazillion times greater than it was in the Staples Center. As for everything that didn’t take place inside the arena, well … it’s Vegas. Something for everyone, usually only a few steps away.
The conference of Larry Scott can never go back to Los Angeles, or to anywhere else, after bringing the tournament to Sin City.