With only three games left in the regular season, Arizona basketball is near its 13th regular-season Pac-12 championship. It is currently tied in the loss column with UCLA and Oregon, and the three teams are neck-and-neck as they hit the home stretch.
As the season closes up, the blueprint for the Wildcats is very simple. This slideshow will explain.
The game against USC on January 26th may have been Arizona's most complete of the year, as the Wildcats absolutely dominated. Up by as many as 30 and winning by 24, the Wildcats took out their UCLA frustration out on the Trojans.
It needs to happen again. The Wildcats need to be intense and focused on this game. It will be very easy to overlook the Trojans while thinking about the UCLA game which comes two days later.
And USC, while not a good team, does have seven wins in the conference, including one over UCLA. The Trojans compete hard in every game and have pushed both Oregon and ASU to the end. This is the definition of a trap game.
But Arizona must not lose. A loss to USC would end its Pac-12 regular-season title hopes and would have seeding implications as well.
This is a game in which Arizona just needs to take care of business.
This game is important not only for the Pac-12 race, but for seeding purposes as well. On January 24, the Wildcats played arguably their worst game of the season on national TV. It came shortly after a loss to Oregon on ESPN and two games after a widely publicized win over Colorado which most impartial observers saw Arizona losing.
Every good team that Arizona has faced since the Pac-12 season began (the jury is still out on ASU being a good team), they have lost to. In most games, the Wildcats have been beaten soundly.
The point is that Arizona, despite its great non-conference victories, still needs to prove its worth. Losing twice to the Bruins during a year in which UCLA isn't even a great team wouldn't look good.
In fact, it would make Arizona look like a team which peaked early and has tumbled down the mountain ever since. A win at Pauley Pavilion would go a long way in showing that Arizona remains near the top and deserves a high tournament seed.
In terms of the Pac-12 race, UCLA is likely to win the other three games it has on its schedule. The Bruins play the mediocre Washington schools and then ASU at home. Therefore, a win for the Wildcats is a must. For many reasons, this is a very significant game for the Wildcats.
After starting last season 14-8, seemingly without a chance to make the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats went on a roll. They began to play their best basketball and won seven of eight games.
Arizona basically played itself back into the tournament, and all that was needed was a win over the lowly nine-win Arizona State Sun Devils. But Arizona overlooked the scrappy team from Tempe and played nonchalant basketball. ASU beat the Wildcats 87-80, sending them back to Tucson and effectively ending their NCAA chances.
This season is different for both teams. Arizona is competing for a very high seed and ASU's turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous. But it is interesting how the roles are reversed. This time, Arizona can be the spoiler.
If ASU is to get off the bubble and into the tournament, a win over a top-10 team would be a nice way to do it. The Sun Devils could, of course, win both games in LA and probably seal their NCAA bid, but I see them losing one of those games.
So walking into Tucson and defeating Arizona would be the crown jewel of a good resume and would get ASU into the tournament. Knowing this, Arizona is going to be even more motivated for a victory.
ASU played Arizona tough in Tempe, and if it weren't for Jahii Carson's foul trouble, the Sun Devils may have it pulled off. But for the Wildcats, a win here over a good ASU team is absolutely essential for the regular-season Pac-12 title.
There are currently three teams in the Pac-12 with four losses: Oregon, UCLA and Arizona. Arizona controls its own destiny as far as UCLA is concerned, but Oregon is another matter. For Arizona to win the Pac-12 title outright, the Ducks need to lose.
Oregon plays OSU at home, then goes to the mountains. The game against Colorado is the only remaining challenge on the Ducks' schedule and it is a tough one. They already lost to Colorado at home, and the Buffs are a great home team.
More likely than not, Oregon will lose this game. That leaves Arizona with an embarrassingly simple blueprint for a Pac-12 regular-season title: win out.
The Wildcats have lots of incentive to get these victories, including exacting revenge against ASU and UCLA and earning a high seed in the NCAAs. But most of all, at this point, a Pac-12 title would be a very nice and symmetrical way to end a great season.