If the Pac-12 is going to vault four squads into the NCAA tourney, Saturday's Arizona vs. Washington matchup needed to be a showcase of what was expected when the year started:
Two of the perennially-top programs on the West Coast, featuring the deepest collection of highly-rated recruits in the conference—including projected first-round NBA draft prospects Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross—in a fast-paced showdown to stay in the hunt for the Pac-12 regular-season championship.
That's exactly what played out, with Wroten and Ross confirming their pro potential in what was a relatively comfortable 79-70 victory, Arizona's five game-winning streak coming to an end in Seattle.
Ross and Wroten combined for 49 points and 14 rebounds, the latter taking over the game in the second half.
According to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, Washington was one of the last four in the tournament before beating Arizona, meaning the victory over the Wildcats will solidify their slot, possibly allowing them to bypass the play-in game.
Washington should not be that close to the edge to begin with, as owners of the most-loaded roster in the conference. The Huskies have underachieved at times given the riches coach Lorenzo Romar has at his disposal, but they looked motivated and dangerous against Arizona on Saturday.
Wroten is the Pac-12's premier freshman and will likely be the conference's highest NBA draft pick.
Ross is a pure shooter and a smooth athlete—another projected NBA first-rounder—who also is a sound defender, snaring five steals against the Wildcats.
Abdul Gaddy entered Washington as one of the most sought-after point guard recruits in the nation, spurning Arizona for Seattle. And he's become an effective, if not flashy, distributor.
Washington also flaunts a mountain of a center in 7'0" Aziz N'Diaye, a severe matchup headache for the smallish Wildcats, who pulled down 12 rebounds against Arizona.
And they cap it all with an elite long-range sniper in C.J. Wilcox.
The Huskies are long and talented, a tourney sleeper.
Meanwhile, Arizona was a No. 11 seed as of yesterday via the ESPN "bracketologist," making its last three regular-season games—against USC, UCLA and ASU—crucial, with a prolonged Pac-12 tourney run bolstering their seed.
That's stable ground compared to how the team started the year.
Washington's two-point victory in Tucson last month seemed like a near-fatal slap to Arizona's NCAA tourney odds, the second of three-straight Saturdays in which the Wildcats lost by a combined five points.
But Arizona has found its identity in February, stifling defensive pressure, shutting down the opposition on the perimeter and leading to cleaner opportunities on the offensive end. The roles are now defined and being played with enough intensity to overcome size and depth deficiencies, leading to five-straight wins before Saturday:
Solomon Hill has emerged as the team's star, a possible All-Pac-12 player.
Kyle Fogg is a viable scoring option and increasingly becoming comfortable in the clutch.
Power forward Jesse Perry is a consistent scorer/rebounder and a calming influence.
Brendan Lavender is suddenly the best three-point shooter in the conference.
Angelo Chol has become Arizona's closest thing resembling a center, showing off his potential defensively in the blocks category.
And the backcourt duo of Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner are starting to resemble the 5-star recruits they were hyped as in high school.
Arizona is the only team to win at California this year, and the Golden Bears are currently resting atop the conference, in large part due to a massive victory in Seattle over these Huskies.
As huge as Arizona's win in Berkeley was, a win in Seattle would have been of equal importance and difficulty.
The Cal win is the most impressive W on the Arizona schedule, so adding a victory against the conference's second-best team on the road would have been a resume boost.
But it's not devastating.
As of Feb. 17, Arizona was in, according to Lunardi.
And a loss to Washington should not change much, besides increasing the pressure to win the last three games.
Arizona should enter all of them as the favorite, though the UCLA matchup is not kind to the smallish Arizona lineup. That was evidenced by the beating the Wildcats took in Los Angeles, a game where the Bruins' massive center Josh Smith was sidelined with a concussion.
Smith is back, and the Wear brothers, who wore out Arizona in the first matchup, will be flanking him, making that the new biggest game of the season.
Arizona must win out in the last three games of the regular season to safely lock down a tourney berth.
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