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Arizona basketball: Wildcats’ opportunities open wide in the West

Mark Lyons

Mark Lyons is coming off a 23-point game against Belmont. Photo by Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

SALT LAKE CITY — The basketball gods have bestowed upon the Arizona Wildcats a golden path through the NCAA Tournament.

Arizona players would never really say as much. Coach Sean Miller certainly wouldn’t. But everybody else can think it. Everybody else can read a tournament bracket.

Everybody else can cross off the No. 3 seed in the West (New Mexico), the No. 4 seed (Kansas State) and the No. 5 seed (Wisconsin).

Arizona, at No. 6, doesn’t look so bad.

It’s been a mood-turning series of events since last Friday in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament, when Solomon Hill, in the final seconds, shot-faked from 3-point range and dribbled inside, missing a leaning 17-footer to tie the game.

The key there was the shot fake. Keep your eye on the dominoes:

Hill’s fake got UCLA freshman Jordan Adams into the air. Adams landed and broke his right foot. UCLA lost to Oregon the next day in the tournament championship game. The NCAA Tournament selection committee downgraded the Bruins because of the loss and the injury, leaving Arizona, at No. 21 overall in the NCAA rankings, as the highest-rated team from the Pac-12.

That Wildcats then got to stay in the West region, were sent to Salt Lake City and, if they can beat 14th-seeded Harvard on Saturday (3:10 p.m. PT, TNT), will head to comfy Los Angeles next week for a Sweet 16 game.

Meanwhile, the West, even before the upsets that eliminated seeds 3, 4 and 5, has the weakest pair of top seeds among the regions, Gonzaga and Ohio State. Good teams, of course, but nothing that truly leaves you trembling in your Nikes.

There isn’t Louisville in Arizona’s way. There isn’t Indiana. Duke is a No. 2 elsewhere. Florida, as a three seed in the South, could be considered more imposing than either of the West’s top two teams.

Arizona still has to take care of business, and nothing is easy, but not all paths in the NCAA Tournament are equal … and the Wildcats’ road is less equal than others, in all the right ways.

For a team that perhaps didn’t deserve the favors of the basketball gods, merely splitting its final 10 games before the NCAAs, everything is breaking the Cats’ way.

“I think so,” admitted Arizona senior Kevin Parrom.

“But we have to stay focused and worry about each game we play. One of the things we don’t want to do is look ahead and think of LA. We know if we win tomorrow, we are going to have a lot of fans at that game and that’s something we look forward to, but we have to take care of business first.”

It takes the right combination of luck and skill to proceed through the NCAA Tournament, and the Wildcats can’t moan about their bad fortune. Take it when you can get it. Just think back to two seasons ago.

Arizona opened against Memphis, a ridiculously athletic and dangerous team for a No. 12 seed. Then came No. 4 Texas. Down went No. 1 Duke in the Sweet 16, and then the Wildcats came within a shot of beating UConn, the eventual national champion, in the regional title. No cupcakes there.

So, Arizona’s done it the hard way in March.

This could be the somewhat easy way.

Which wouldn’t mean anything if Arizona hadn’t helped itself, stepping up its game in the past couple of weeks, resembling the highly-ranked team it was before mid-January.

Check out the rotation, one through eight. At any time in the Pac-12 season, you could find a few guys who weren’t playing their best. One game it might be Mark Lyons’ turnovers. Another game, it might be the lack of consistency from the freshman big men. Or Jordin Mayes’ disappearing act. Or Nick Johnson’s shooting slump. You get the idea.

Now, there’s not a player in the rotation you can point to that isn’t playing at, or very near, their best.

The combination of good luck and good playing makes all things possible.

Arizona, meanwhile, narrows its focus to Harvard, conquerors of New Mexico on Thursday night.

“No seed matters,” Miller said.

“It’s about Arizona being at its very best, doing the things we do, the best we can, being ready to go, knowing that we have to play a great game. If anything happens less than that, we’re going to go home.”

But the Wildcats also could be heading to Los Angeles in a weakened West region. They couldn’t have asked for anything more.

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