LAS VEGAS - Tommy Lloyd sat at a postgame news conference looking at the Pac-12 regular-season trophy. The Arizona coach never expected to win it in his first season.
Neither did anyone else.
A team picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 preseason poll, the second-ranked Wildcats were one of the biggest surprises of the 2021-22 college basketball season. The Wildcats became the first Pac-12 team to win 18 conference games in a season and won the regular-season title by three games to earn the top seed at this week’s Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
One goal down, more still on the checklist for Lloyd and the deep, long and athletic Wildcats.
"When we go play in Vegas or even forward, you don’t get extra points. You don’t set up a game 8-0 because you won a conference championship. It’s 0-0," Lloyd said. "That other team’s hungry and they’re fighting for their lives just like we are. Elimination basketball is fun. It’s not easy and I look forward to taking this team down that journey."
Arizona (28-3) is the favorite to win the Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena after dominating the conference all season.
Lloyd brought with him the style he helped Mark Few create during 22 years as an assistant at Gonzaga. The Wildcats have looked a lot like the top-ranked Zags during Lloyd’s first season in the desert, finishing first nationally with 20.1 assists per game, third in scoring (84.7 points) and fifth in shooting percentage (49.5).
Like Gonzaga, Arizona is also an excellent defensive team, with size inside — two 7-footers with 6-foot-11 forward Azoulas Tubelis — and rangy perimeter defenders who can guard multiple positions. The Wildcats were fifth nationally in field goal defense, holding teams to 38% shooting, and ninth with 5.7 blocked shots per game.
Arizona is in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and opens the Pac-12 tournament Thursday against the Stanford-Arizona State winner.
"We’re still hungry," Arizona senior guard Justin Kier said. "So we’re gonna continue to be hungry until we get what we want. So we’re going to continue to get better and keep going."
No. 13 UCLA poses the biggest threat to Arizona’s bid to sweep the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles.
The Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12 after returning everyone from last year’s Final Four team. UCLA went through a couple of rough patches, but closed the season by winning six of seven, including over rival No. 21 Southern California in the regular-season finale.
The Bruins also are one of three teams to beat the Wildcats this season, posting a 75-59 victory on Jan. 25.
"The past is the past and the work we put in will determine the future," UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. "What happened in March last year has nothing to do with (this season)."
The second-seeded Bruins open the Pac-12 tournament Thursday against the Cal-Washington State winner.
SURGING SUN DEVILS
The team no one wants to face in Las Vegas is Arizona State.
The Sun Devils were disjointed at times early in the season, putting coach Bobby Hurley on the hot seat. Arizona State has rounded into form at just the right time, entering the Pac-12 tournament with seven wins in eight games.
The Sun Devils have had a better flow to their offense and have been a gritty defensive team all season, holding their last eight opponents under 70 points.
"We were a new team coming in, so now I feel like everybody knows how to play with each other," Arizona State guard Jay Heath said. "I feel like we are peaking at the right time."
Oregon State was one of the biggest surprises of the 2020-21 season, winning the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 5 seed and then carried the momentum all the way to the Elite Eight.
The follow-up hasn’t gone so well.
Struggling with injuries and inconsistencies, the Beavers enter the Pac-12 tournament 3-27 and on a 17-game losing streak.
"There’s a lot of things we are disappointed about," coach Wayne Tinkle said after a loss to UCLA last month. "I just know we are going to continue to grind and we are going to bounce back. When I can’t tell you, but we know what the issues are and we will get them fixed."
Oregon State opens Wednesday against rival Oregon, which needs a good run in the Pac-12 tournament after closing the regular season with five losses in six games.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
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