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No. 2 seed Arizona faces No. 15 Texas Southern in opener

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Even Arizona coach Sean Miller has wondered how last season would have ended had Brandon Ashley been healthy for the finish.

Now Miller is eager to see how this season ends with him.

Ashley was voted the Pac-12 tournament’s most outstanding player as Arizona thrashed Oregon by a margin of 28 points for the conference’s postseason championship.

Peaking at just the right time, Ashley and the Wildcats head into the NCAA Tournament as a second seed in the West for Thursday’s opener against No. 15 Texas Southern in Portland, Oregon.

The 6-foot-9 junior forward was out with a foot injury last season when the Wildcats worked through the NCAA Tournament with wins over Weber State, Gonzaga, and San Diego State before falling to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. Gone from that team are Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson.

“We were a man short last year with Brandon going down. If can you imagine Brandon playing like this on last year’s team, what we could have done. Nobody knows that more than him,” Miller said. “But that’s last year. We’re healthy this year, and some of the things that we know we’re very good at, we have to be ourselves and take them into this tournament this week.”

The Wildcats (31-3) have won 11 straight games going into the game, including victories over California, UCLA and finally Oregon in the conference championship.

Ashley ranks second on the team in points with an average of 12.3. He’s also averaging 5.4 rebounds. But in the three Pac-12 tournament games, he averaged 19.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.

“Coming off an injury, it really does take a lot of time to get all the way back to where you want to be,” Ashley said. “So I feel like at this point I am confident. I do feel a hundred percent healthy, and my teammates and my coaching staff have a huge part in that.”

Texas Southern (22-12) earned a spot in the tournament by winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference final 62-58 against Southern. It was the Tigers’ second straight league tournament title, last season the team fell to Cal-Poly in its NCAA Tournament opener.

The two teams have never met. The victor will go on to meet the winner of Thursday’s other West region game between seventh seed VCU and 10th seed Ohio State.

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NO GIMMES: Led by Madarious Gibbs, the SWAC Player of the Year who averages 14.2 points and 4.3 assists, Texas Southern has proven that it can be competitive with wins on the road this season at Michigan State and at Kansas State. At the same time, Arizona’s three losses this season came from unranked challengers UNLV, Oregon State and Arizona State.

“Going into the season we wanted to play a very challenging non-conference schedule in order to prepare us for this moment,” Texas Southern Coach Mike Davis said.

WILY VETS: Arizona has claimed 14 regular-season Pac-12 titles and five conference tournament championships. The Wildcats have been to the NCAA Tournament 32 times with a 51-30 record. They’ve advanced 16 times to the Sweet 16, 10 times to the Elite Eight, four times to the Final Four. The Wildcats won the national championship in 1997.

The Wildcats were also a No. 2 seed in 2001 when they advanced to the NCAA Tournament final. Overall Arizona is 12-5 as a No. 2 seed.

GETTING THERE: Once Texas Southern got to its conference championship game, the Tigers were already guaranteed an NCAA Tournament berth, as opponent Southern was ineligible because of issues with its academic progress rates. Five schools in the SWAC are ineligible, but the school presidents voted to allow the teams to take part in the conference tournament.

Despite the fact that its automatic berth was predetermined, coach Davis played his starters in the title game.

GHOSTS OF TOURNAMENTS PAST: Miller said he’ll make sure his team is refocused for the NCAAs after the emotional victory over Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament final.

“When I was at Xavier, we had a noon game on Thursday, we were down 13 at the half, and I walked in at halftime and said, ‘Fellas, we’re going to be out of the tournament before it even begins.’ You have to be ready. Everybody in the tournament is capable of beating you,” he said.

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Yes, Texas Southern coach Mike Davis is that Mike Davis, who led the Indiana Hoosiers on their surprising run to the national championship game 2002. The Hoosiers, the fifth seed led by Jared Jeffries, fell to top-seeded Maryland 64-52 in the final. Davis, by the way, was Bob Knight’s successor at Indiana.

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