Las Vegas, NV (SportsNetwork.com) - The top-seeded Arizona Wildcats will begin their quest for the Pac-12 Conference Tournament title when they open up quarterfinal-round action against the eight-seeded Utah Utes.
The Wildcats earned the top seed in this tournament by easily winning the regular-season title. They finished 15-3 in conference play, a full three games ahead of second-place finisher UCLA. Arizona also dominated outside of the conference, ending the regular season at 28-3 overall and ranked fourth in the AP Top-25. They are seeking their first conference crown since 2002, after falling short in the semifinals or later in each of the last three seasons.
In the first round, Utah held off Washington to notch a 67-63 victory. The win was just the third in nine tries on the road or a neutral court for the Utes, who owe their 21-win campaign to their stunning 18-2 mark at home.
Although Utah was swept in the season series by Arizona, the Utes showed how dangerous they are at home in the most recent clash, nearly pulling off the upset before falling in overtime, 67-63. Utah still owns a slight edge in the all-time series (28-27), with the winner this time moving on to face the victor between California and Colorado in the semifinals.
Delon Wright scored 15 points and Jordan Loveridge just missed a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in the opening round against Washington. After getting out to a 10-point lead at halftime and 58-53 with 3:36 to play, the Utes let the Huskies back in the game, falling behind 60-59 with just over a minute remaining. However, Dakarai Tucker nailed a big 3-pointer down the stretch, and Brandon Taylor iced the game with two free throws with 15 ticks left on the clock.
Although it only connected on 44.9 percent from the field on Wednesday, Utah rarely ever has an off night in terms of shooting the ball. The Utes are sinking the fourth-best percentage from the field in the country (.496), leading to a respectable 76.8 ppg scoring average. Making the extra pass on offensive possessions is the key, as the Utes rank 18th in assists (15.7 apg). Versatile swingman Delon Wright (16.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.6 spg) stuffs the stat sheet and earned All-Pac-12 First-Team honors for his work. In support, Jordan Loveridge (15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg) is a solid forward who can spread the floor.
With little to play for in the final game of the season, Arizona's 64-57 loss to Oregon was less of a blow than it could have been. The Wildcats were the better team inside, outscoring the Ducks 32-20 in the paint, but they were outscored 30-6 from 3-point range, a margin that clearly proved detrimental.
Sean Miller, who was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, mentors one of the best defensive teams in the country this season. Arizona is among the top-10 teams in scoring defense (58.7 ppg), assists against (9.2 apg) and opponent field goal percentage (.385). With such dominant play at that end, the Wildcats have not had to be as potent offensively, as they net just 73.5 ppg. Nick Johnson (16.1 ppg) and Aaron Gordon (12.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) joined their coach in earning postseason hardware, with Johnson named the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and Gordon laying claim to the award for the top freshman. T.J. McConnell (8.3 ppg, 5.5 apg) has run the point well after transferring in from Duquesne. The team is still trying to find a consistent replacement for Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg), but Kaleb Tarczewski (10.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) has made strides in attempting to do so.