The University of Arizona mens basketball team finds itself in an unfamiliar predicament this week, playing four games in as many days on the Las Vegas Strip.
The Wildcats (17-14, 8-10) begin their quest for a second-straight Pac-12 conference tournament championship at noon on Wednesday, against the USC Trojans (15-16, 8-10).
Arizona will have to win four games in four days to win this year’s championship, after finishing outside the top-four in the final conference standings (the top four teams receive a first round bye in the tournament).
The Wildcats enter Wednesday’s opening round off consecutive losses to Oregon and Arizona State, finishing the regular season with its most single season defeats since the 2009-10 campaign—Sean Miller’s first in Tucson.
Miller addressed the team’s conference tournament slate and a host of other topics during his weekly media availability on Monday afternoon.
The longtime Arizona coach described his team’s late-season slide as the result of sloppy ballhandling, resulting in turnovers that gave their opponents a much-needed edge.
“Well, our last two regular season games were when things really changed,” Miller said. “…But in both games, the thing that we had as our greatest strength, that kept us in a lot of games and allowed us to win a few away from home, and win some really though games all the way to the final buzzer, was our ability to carry the ball.”
Miller is tasked with rectifying the squad’s shortcomings in the single-elimination tournament, a task that won’t be simple against a Trojans squad that features several NBA draft prospects.
The two squads played once during the regular season, with USC winning on its home court, 80-57.
Miller’s squad was treated to a wire-to-wire pummeling in that contest, with the Trojans holding Arizona to 20 percent shooting from the field.
A potential difference-maker for Miller’s side is the return of junior forward Chase Jeter, who missed the first matchup with a back injury.
Miller expressed confidence in Jeter’s ability to provide solid interior offense and defense against Rakocevic, neutralizing the man that scored 27 points on 13/17 shooting in their first matchup.
“We’re a better team with Chase, especially against USC,” Miller said. “The strength of their team lies in their two big guys, statistically Bennie Boatwright and [Nick] Rakocevic, they combine for 33 points per game.”
The winner of Wednesday’s 8/9 seed game between Arizona and USC faces Pac-12 regular season champion Washington at noon on Thursday.
Miller believes the key to making a late-season run through the Las Vegas tournament will rest on his team’s ability to hit timely shots, while avoiding turnovers and playing stifling defense.
“Two things that we have to be able to control are just playing with pride, and along with that pride is playing with great effort,” Miller said. “If you lose, you’re done. If we can play a good game, be at our best, and play with that pride, and great effort on Wednesday at noon, the game will be here before you know it.”
How to Watch: Ninth-seeded Arizona and eighth-seed USC will play at noon Arizona time on Wednesday. The Pac-12 Network will carry the game.
Who to Watch: Keep an eye on USC forward Bennie Boatwright, who leads the Trojans in scoring, at 18.1 points per game. Fellow forward Nick Rakocevic is another name to watch, averaging 14.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game this season.
How to Bet: There hasn’t been an official line released yet from Vegas, but ESPN’s basketball power index has Wednesday’s game as a 50/50 tossup.
Score Prediction: It’s hard to see Arizona stopping Rakocevic and Boatwright, so I’ll go with USC winning this one, 71-68.