As of Saturday night, Arizona officially swept both the Pac-12 regular season and the conference tournament titles. The thing that makes these regular accomplishments different this year, however, is that Arizona has already had bigger victories on the year. And it simply feels like there are bigger things to come.
Sean Miller had incredibly damning allegations brought upon himself by Mark Schlabach of ESPN. Enough has been written about that (including my column last week), so I won’t get into the details. What I’m getting at here is that Miller’s complete and concrete denial of ESPN’s allegations was a bigger victory in and of itself for this year’s team than a conference title ever could be. The conference title was expected. Miller’s allegations were not, and the way ESPN presented them made the accusations seem air-tight. Miller overcoming them gave his players something more to play for than another banner to hang from the rafters. This Arizona team is playing for their coach.
Furthermore, junior guard Allonzo Trier was suspended for the same PEDs that he had been punished for using at the beginning of the 2016-17 season. Trier’s absence led to the loss at Oregon two weeks ago. But then, Trier was cleared to play by the NCAA just hours before Arizona took on Stanford last Thursday. That game was also Miller’s first after his statement to the media denying the accusations. Trier winning his appeal was also bigger to the team than winning the conference.
Las Vegas, where the conference tournament was held, has been painted red by Arizona fans. The conference regular season and tournament titles mean a great deal to the fans, don’t get me wrong. But this team just feels like it’s destined for more. The weekend tournament felt like a mere pit-stop on the road to San Antonio.
Take Arizona’s quarter final win over Colorado, for example. Deandre Ayton wasn’t his usual self — he was only able to play 25 minutes due to foul trouble. So, Miller put Keanu Pinder and Emanuel Akot in to protect the rim. As a result, Colorado had two second chance points all game. Arizona had ten. The Wildcats are finding ways to win, even when top contributors struggle. They’ve won close games all season. This Pac-12 tournament title will be fun, but, in the big scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal.
And that’s really good news for Arizona fans.