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Sean Miller: Arizona Wildcats have ‘earned’ the No. 1 ranking

Arizona and this starting five will be ranked No. 1 on Monday. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona and this starting five will be ranked No. 1 on Monday. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The chant started for the first time during a timeout with 16.5 seconds left.

“No. 1! No. 1!”

The Wildcats were putting the finishing touches on a hard-fought 63-58 victory over UNLV at McKale Center, a win that almost certainly will change No. 2 Arizona to No. 1 Arizona on Monday when the new college basketball polls are released.

No. 1 for the first time since the week of March 10, 2003.

“I think it’s something we feel like we’ve earned,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose team is 9-0.

“We know that being ranked doesn’t mean we won a championship, or the season is now over, but I’m not going to play the negative card at all with that. …

“To be ranked No. 1 is maybe the greatest compliment that you can have. All of us can say we played, coached, watched the No. 1 team in the country. It’s like winning the NIT championship in New York. It’s something we put on this year’s resume. It’s something we feel good about.

“Now, the responsibility that comes with it is very obvious.”

The Wildcats entered Saturday’s game with a pair of quality victories — at San Diego State and vs. Duke in the title game of the NIT Season Tip-Off — and a win over UNLV isn’t bad. The Rebs were only 3-3 entering the game, but shot the lights out in the first half and had the athleticism to hang with Arizona until the end. They will be a handful in the Mountain West.

“You can see from a talent perspective that they don’t take the back seat to many,” Miller said.

Arizona had been aiming for No. 1 ever since top-ranked Michigan State lost at home to North Carolina on Wednesday night.

“We were thinking about UNLV all week,” said point guard T.J. McConnell. “Now that we won and we’re possibly No. 1, it’s satisfying.”

Arizona was No. 1 in seven different seasons under coach Lute Olson.

Miller says he doesn’t want his Wildcats to suddenly switch into a mode of having to “defend” the No. 1 ranking after being on the “chase” — his word — all season.

“If anything, I think it sharpens everything that we do. Every practice. Every shootaround. Being smart on weekends,” he said.

“There is a sharpness you have to have and a responsibility to try to stay No. 1. The word ‘chase’ is what we’ve used — to chase No. 1, to be on the attack — and we can’t lose that. One of the things our team has done a great job of is we’ve taken every next step and we’ve been ready for it, and we have to continue to do that.”

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