March 10, 2009
With a conference leading 17 tournament wins and four tournament championships, the Arizona men's basketball team has history on its side when it opens the 2009 Pacific Life Pac-10 Tournament this weekend in Los Angeles.
The Wildcats play in-state rival Arizona State Wednesday, March 12, in Staples Center to tip-off the annual event's quarterfinals.
With three straight wins, Arizona can earn the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but if you talk to anyone on the team all of the focus is on the game with rival Arizona State.
"I don't think our mindset has changed all year. We aren't looking past Thursday and if there is a Friday, great," said Arizona head coach Russ Pennell. "We've got a one-game season, you win and you get to keep playing and we want to keep playing."
Pennell has preached to his team all season to always focus on the game in front of them, nothing down the road and nothing in the past. If the Wildcats add that attribute to their past conference tournament accomplishments, it should make for a recipe for success.
"I'm excited for (the conference tournament)," said junior guard Nic Wise. "It's going to be a battle the whole tournament. I think it will be a good competition because every team has the talent to beat anyone."
The Wildcats are as talented as anyone in the league, putting juniors Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill to the league's all-conference first team, while Wise landed on the second team. Arizona and Pac-10 champ Washington were the only two squads to have three players on that all-conference list.
Arizona also has the benefit of momentum on its side. The Wildcats are coming off a 101-87 win over Stanford where the team shot a season-high 70 percent from the floor, led by Budinger, Hill and Wise.
The Wildcats also showed that others can contribute as well. Of the nine players to see action in the win over the Cardinal, eight scored three or more points.
Arizona will need that kind of effort from everyone on the team if it wants to beat the Sun Devils Thursday. ASU finished the season as the conference's No. 4 seed, the Wildcats are No.5, and this will be just fifth time in 25 games, Arizona had gone into a conference tournament match-up as the lower seed.
Arizona State was one of only two teams to sweep the Wildcats during the conference season. The Wildcats dropped the series opener in McKale Center, 53-47, but had a chance to tie the game in the last minute.
In Tempe, Arizona trailed the host Sun Devils by ten at halftime and fell down by 17 in the second half but staged a big comeback, but could overtake Arizona State in the end and fell, 70-68.
Both Hill and Wise said Arizona is going to use the last two meetings with ASU as motivation for Thursday's match up.
"This is one of the teams that swept us this season and we have everything to prove, to them and to ourselves," Wise said.
Hill added, "We just have to go out there and work hard. We can beat them, but we have to have that mindset and go out and be the aggressor."
While much of the attention surrounding the Wildcats focuses on whether or not the team will make its' 25th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, Arizona players and staff say they are really not concerned with that right now.
"The best thing for us to do is win ball games, if we keep winning they can't keep us out," Pennell said. "We're only focusing on the things we can control because if we do what we should do, we'll be ok."
On the season, Arizona has collected four wins over teams currently in the AP's Top-25, No. 11 Kansas (84-67), No. 12 Gonzaga (69-64), No. 13 Washington (106-97) and No. 16 UCLA (84-72) and four wins over teams who won their regular season conference championships, Kansas, Washington, Weber State (71-65) and Gonzaga.
"There's not much you can say," said Wise. "You have to just let your resume do your talking. We're that close to winning 22-23 games, but we aren't really thinking about the NCAA tournament right now."
Of the Wildcats' 12 losses, seven were by five points or less including three one-point losses, so Arizona has showed it can play with any team in the nation.
"When we're all done, our resume will give a good indication of our team," said Pennell.