This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
At various times, other schools deservedly have earned attention in Pac-12 basketball this season. California's recruiting class, Oregon's surge into the conference lead and USC's overcoming dire predictions have emerged among the themes of a year when the league's overall talent and depth have created great competition.
Those fresh subjects all had their merits. Yet here we are in mid-February, and the Pac-12 standings have a traditional look with Arizona on top at 9-4. The distinction between the Wildcats and co-leader Oregon is merely alphabetical, but it is meaningful. The story of this conference? Always Arizona.
The Pac-12's flagship basketball program stood sixth as of the halfway mark of the conference schedule, two weeks ago. The Wildcats were 5-4 then, trailing Oregon by two games. Two weeks is a long time, as it turns out. Actually, the Wildcats made up a two-game deficit this past week alone, when Oregon lost at Cal and Stanford, while Arizona beat UCLA and USC in Tucson.
Having lost freshman forward Stanley Johnson to the NBA, the Wildcats gave everybody else a chance this season as they played through injuries to center Kaleb Tarczewski and guard Alonzo Trier. Arizona lost four of its first eight conference games, including a four-overtime defeat at USC. That was stunning, for a program that went 31-5 in the league the previous two seasons. But the 'Cats have come back, winning five in a row.
Arizona's remaining schedule is slightly tougher than Oregon's, and the Wildcats are not overwhelming everybody the way they've been known to do in the past. Yet somebody will have to play really well to knock off these guys.
Arizona hosts Arizona State on Wednesday, then has a week to prepare for the Colorado-Utah swing the following Wednesday and Saturday. The Wildcats will conclude the regular season at home vs. Cal and Stanford. Oregon's remaining schedule has Oregon State, Washington State and Washington at home and UCLA and USC on the road.
Colorado (8-5), Utah (8-5), USC (7-5) and Cal (7-5) are all in the picture, but picking against Arizona is tough at this point. Maybe I'm playing into the myth of Arizona's automatic domination of this league by anointing the Wildcats as the favorites again, ignoring their relative struggles this season.
Even in Sunday's win over USC, the Wildcats lost nearly all of a 20-point lead in the second half before righting themselves. But Arizona's talent, with an interesting mix of veterans and youth, is awfully difficult to overcome. Just when the Wildcats appear more vulnerable than ever, they pull together with help from multiple talent sources.
Imagine where the Wildcats would be without forward Ryan Anderson, who transferred from Boston College and redshirted last year, just so he could play one season for Arizona. Coach Sean Miller, in his seventh season, labels Anderson his program's most consistent player, other than Derrick Williams as a sophomore in 2010-11. Anderson is averaging 16.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in Pac-12 play, shooting 60.2 percent from the field.
The Wildcats also got vital production from forward Mark Tollefsen, a graduate transfer from San Francisco, when Trier missed seven games with a broken hand. In conference games, Arizona is No. 1 in rebounding margin, 3-point shooting and overall shooting, with senior guard Gabe York scoring 16.5 points.
York is well-remembered in Utah for grabbing his own free-throw rebound and making a go-ahead layup in the last two minutes of the Wildcats' 63-57 victory last February in the packed Huntsman Center, basically clinching the Pac-12 championship.
Next week's rematch the only Utah-Arizona meeting this season has the potential for another epic setting. The Wildcats have played their way back into prime position. The Utes' challenge is to stay there, as they try to survive the trip to UCLA and USC before getting their shot at the defending champs.