It’s the final weekend of Pac-12 Conference play, ever. Two games in Los Angeles and next week’s Pac-12 Tournament will mark the end of Arizona’s 46-year run in a league it has more or less owned the last 40 years.

And like so many other times since winning its first regular-season title in 1986, the Wildcats (23-6, 14-4) enter that final weekend in position to take the top spot once again. Beat both UCLA and USC and they win the outright crown and get the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tourney, and the same goes with at least one win and a loss Thursday night by Washington State (23-7, 14-5) at home against Washington.

Getting that 18th regular-season title, and second in three years, is among Arizona’s many goals for this season. But it’s not as important as ones achieved later in March and maybe into April.

“It’s something we’ve always had a desire to win,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said Wednesday. “But you can not win the Pac-12 regular season (title) and still play well in the NCAA tournament. We want to go step by step and keep building. Our focus right now is to try to come out and play really well this weekend and put ourselves in position to win the Pac-12. We know that’s not going to be easy, we got a team that’s deserving and right on our heels, so we’ve got to come out and play well on the road, which is never easy to do.”

Arizona is 6-3 in true road games this season, winning the last four after dropping three straight including an 83-80 buzzer-beating loss at Oregon State on Jan. 25. It was after that game, and in preparation for a visit to Oregon two days later, that Lloyd challenged his experienced team to play like one.

“I told our veterans to start playing better,” he said. “I mean, that was it. I think they had to start playing better. It wasn’t complicated, play better. It matters. We have a mature group of guys, and they’ve owned that. They know what these moments mean. Ultimately, they’re the ones out on the court. I’m responsible for the result, and I’ll always own that, but the message was simple: play better. And they have for the most part since then.”

The UA has won nine of 10 since that loss, the only blemish at home to WSU on Feb. 22.

The road performances since then have been especially noteworthy, not just because of the final scores. In winning at Oregon, Utah (in triple overtime), Colorado and ASU the Wildcats held double-digit leads in the first half in each game.

“That gives you a step ahead, because when the game is tied the crowd gets into it,” center Oumar Ballo said. “If you have a big lead, that at least gives you a little more room for error.”

There have been big early leads at home in that stretch, too. But the last time the UA played UCLA it was a different story.

The Bruins led by 19 in the first half, then after getting within nine at halftime were down 17 early in the second half before rallying to win 77-71. Lloyd called that a “frantic and panic” game that, while valuable to experience because of the comeback, can’t happen at Pauley Pavilion.

“I was proud of that effort … but I’m aware of how good UCLA can be,” he said. “And obviously we got to play better, going on the road, to give ourselves a chance to win than we did in that first half and early in that second half against them.”

UCLA (14-15, 9-9) won six in a row after that game but has since dropped its last four. Bruins coach Mick Cronin earlier this week called it a rebuilding year despite being picked to finish third and getting four first-place votes.

The Bruins are 8-6 at home this season, but they have won five in a row at Pauley against Arizona. The Wildcats’ last win there was Jan. 20, 2017, a game best known for marking the season debut of Allonzo Trier after he missed the first 19 contests while suspended by the NCAA for testing positive for a banned substance. Trier came off the bench in that game while Kobi Simmons scored a career-high 20 in a 96-85 win over a UCLA squad that featured three future NBA first-round picks (Lonzo Ball, Aaron Holiday and TJ Leaf) and two more second-round choices.

The 2016-17 season was also the last time Arizona swept the LA trip. Since then it’s gone 3-7, including a split there to end the 2022-23 regular season.

“I love how it sets up,” Lloyd said. “We’re done with McKale. Done. It’s time to move on and play away from here, so I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. For us to go out and finish the season on the road is good because we’re gonna have to play really well away from home the rest of the year. And I think we have been playing well away from home as of late, so let’s keep it going.”

Source link