Fifth-ranked Arizona begins its 2015 postseason in much the same way it has most postseasons for the last 27 years, and the past six since Sean Miller became head coach.
The Wildcats harbor Final Four aspirations — and why wouldn’t they, sitting at 28-3 with a second consecutive Pac-12 regular-season championship in tow?
But as Arizona opens the Pac-12 Tournament Thursday against Cal, the Wildcats have a March monkey on their back that gains weight with each postseason. Getting rid of it starts in Las Vegas, where arguably no team is under as much pressure to win the Pac-12 Tournament as the top-seed.
Arizona has not won the conference tournament since 2002. The Wildcats also have not reached the Final Four since 2001 — coincidentally, the last season before the then-Pac-10 relaunched its tournament after 12 years of dormancy.
Arizona won five regular-season conference titles over that stretch, including this year’s: the third since Sean Miller replaced legendary Lute Olson in 2009.
So just how important is winning the Pac-12 for Arizona to also reach the Final Four?
“[The Pac-12 Tournament] sets the tone on a lot of fronts,” Sean Miller said in his press conference this week, via ArizonaWildcats.com. “One is how well you’re playing leading into the next tournament…Being able to win both says a lot about how hard it is. I know it’s been awhile since we’ve won it.”
In Miller’s tenure at Arizona, the conference’s tournament truly has set a tone for the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament performance.
Consider the 2011 Wildcats went to overtime with Washington in the Pac-10 title game. Isaiah Thomas’ 28 points gave the Huskies a two-point win. Later, in the Elite Eight, Kemba Walker’s 20 points lifted the Connecticut Huskies to a 65-63 defeat of the Wildcats.
In 2013, Arizona lost in a semifinal slug-fest to rival UCLA, much like its Sweet 16 exit against Ohio State.
Last year, an overtime Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin was reminiscent of Arizona’s dramatic, seesaw affair with UCLA in the Pac-12 title game.
So while there may not be a direct correlation between a conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament…there is a direct correlation.
No Pac-12 team is playing as well as Arizona over the past month. Since losing at Arizona State on Feb. 7, the Wildcats ripped off eight straight wins by an average of 23.3 points per game.
Only Utah played Arizona within a single-digit, final margin over that stretch.
“We feel good about how we’re playing,” Miller said. “It’ll be interesting see us take that to the neutral court in Vegas.”
Neutral is only accurate in a technical sense. Arizona’s fan presence at the Pac-12 Tournament has long been the strongest but has yet to translate to a championship.
Likewise, three of Arizona’s four Elite Eight losses in the past 12 years were in Anaheim, where a strong contingent of Wildcats faithful filled the Honda Center.
Should Arizona land in the West Regional, as bracket-projectors like ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi are predicting, the Wildcats would play in Los Angeles’ Staples Center.
That’s another venue where recent, bad memories linger for the Wildcats. They were eliminated from the 2013 NCAA Tournament there.
But familiarity with these pressure situations could be what finally gets Arizona and Sean Miller to a Pac-12 Tournament title and Final Four.
Guard T.J. McConnell said following the Wildcats’ aforementioned win at Utah Feb. 28 that past failures in tight road games made the difference that night.
“We just said, ‘We’ve been here before,'” McConnell told USA Today‘s Nicole Auerbach.
Kicking off postseason play Thursday with high expectations and plenty of pressure is another place Arizona’s been before, too.