The Arizona Wildcats have hit the 30-win mark for the third time in five years, but from now on, it’s not the cumulative record stacked behind them that’s important.
It’s one win at a time.
The Wildcats will face the Oregon Ducks Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game in Las Vegas.
After, the ‘Cats can focus on their ultimate national championship bid and the madness of March, but for now, it’s about the last step in the conference-climb back to the top after getting tripped up for over a decade.
They’ve lost the title game three times in four years and haven’t won the Pac-12 Tournament championship since 2002.
“I think motivation to us is being so close last year and not being able to win the Pac-12 championship,” point guard T.J. McConnell had said earlier this week. “That’s motivation for all of us. Just being hungry and wanting to go out and get over the hump and get a Pac-12 championship.”
Arizona has been consistent since a loss to Arizona State in February, winning 10 straight since — all by a margin of at least six points.
And the ‘Cats’ season has included two absolute routs of Oregon, 80-62 on Jan. 8 and 90-56 on Jan. 28.
Yet the Ducks have also shown improvement since their last loss to Arizona, going on to win 11 of their next 12 games.
Oregon is currently on a seven-game win streak that got an extra jolt Friday night when Pac-12 Player of the Year Joseph Young knocked down a three with about two seconds to play to push the Ducks over Utah in thrilling fashion:
The Wildcats want to prove their dominance in the conference, but they need a physical manifestation — the Pac-12 Tournament trophy — to seal that.
A win Saturday would give them the most victories in the 18 years of the Pac-12 Tournament. It would be their fifth in almost two decades — the difference between splitting the four-title prominence with UCLA and being the best.
It’s one game.
What can Arizona do to win it?
Pass the Rock
Las Vegas is known for its massive buffets — and T.J. McConnell is in charge of bringing the dishes.
The senior guard had his fifth double-digit assist performance of the season with 11 against UCLA, and his third in the last four games.
McConnell wasn’t quite that effective against Oregon, with eight combined assists in two previous matchups against the Ducks, but now he’s got a streak going that he doesn’t want to break.
It’s been a trend all season — when the guard is playing well and doling out his snappy dishes, the rest of his team just flat out plays better.
In fact, when McConnell has recorded at least nine assists (five times this season), Arizona has beaten opponents by an average of 25.6 points per game.
Rondae All Day
He’s not just a big man — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is also a hype man.
The 6-foot-7 forward may not always lead the team in scoring, but he’s responsible for half the highlight-reel moments that are key in big games.
Hollis-Jefferson set the tone early against UCLA with a monster jam that sent an already hot-blooded Arizona crowd into wild delirium.
Then, he put the exclamation point at the end of Arizona’s bid against the Bruins with a block against Kevin Looney to stave off the opposing rally.
A couple more of those momentum-swinging moments, aided by his signature shutdown defense, and the Wildcats may just win the whole shabangin’ thing.
Mighty Joe Young
The Ducks are led by one of the gutsiest shooters in the conference, and he showed it with a dagger triple to beat Utah Friday night.
Young averages 20 points per game and 3.7 assists.
He has been held to under 12 points only five times this season in 33 games, and two of those times came against the Wildcats’ notorious defense.
In all but one of the games in which he’s scored under 12, the Ducks have lost.
If the ‘Cats can neutralize Young, they’ll likely cruise to a third win over Oregon this season and a conference title.