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Pac-12 Tournament: Are we overlooking Arizona right now?

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It was February 1st when it looked like Arizona’s season was changed.

Early in the first half of a loss at Cal — the Wildcats’ first loss of the season — starting power forward Brandon Ashley broke a bone in his foot and was lost for the season. That came after Arizona won a dogfight at Stanford and before Sean Miller’s club sandwiched a two-point win over Oregon and an overtime win at Utah with a double-overtime loss at Arizona State.

During that three-week stretch, the only time that the Wildcats scored more than 67 points came when they pounded Oregon State in Tucson.

The Wildcats looked lost. Their offense had stalled enough that it didn’t matter how tenacious their defense was. Arizona, once considered to be the best team in the country, didn’t look like a Final Four contender.

Fast forward to the middle of March, and anyone that had doubted the Wildcats looks silly.

Because after a 63-43 evisceration of Colorado, that came a day after the Wildcats pounded Utah into oblivion with a 71-39 win, the Wildcats will head into the Pac-12 tournament title game playing arguably the best basketball of anyone in the country, and that could very well include both Florida and Wichita State.

Doesn’t it feel like they’re flying under the radar?

Maybe it’s because we know what they are. Maybe it’s because so many other teams that were considered contenders — Syracuse, Kansas, Michigan State — have serious question marks as we enter the last weekend before the NCAA tournament begins. Maybe it’s because all anyone wanted to talk about for the last three weeks was whether or not Wichita State actually deserves to be in the same conversation as the Arizonas and the Floridas of the world. Maybe it’s they actually as a No. 1 seed locked up while the likes of Villanova, Michigan and Wisconsin are battling it out for that last spot on the top line.

Whatever the case is, this is your wake-up call.

Arizona is as good as, if not better than, they were when they were the nation’s No. 1 team.

Because, as crazy as it sounds, their defense has actually gotten better.

Aaron Gordon may be the best defender in the country. He’s big enough to guard fours and quick enough to stay in front of point guards. He can block a shot and rebound in traffic with anyone, and he can pick a point guard’s pocket. He’s a nightmare at the top of a press and he’s the prototype when it comes to big men that can defend the pick-and-roll. He’s a perfect fit in Arizona’s pack-line defense …

And there’s a valid argument to make that he’s the third-best defender on this Arizona team.

Seriously.

That’s how good Nick Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are.

And while being forced to play Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson together has hurt Arizona’s half-court offense, putting three athletes like that on the floor together makes Arizona very good in transition, which is something that Miller has made a point to emphasize in recent weeks.

So be forewarned.

They may not have the same level of hype as they did three months ago, but this Arizona team is more-than-capable of winning a national title.

Don’t be fooled when you fill out your bracket.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Some conference matchups play out before football

Oregon forward Dillon Brooks, left, reacts after scoring a basket against Utah during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Oregon defeated Utah 77-59. (AP Photo/George Frey)
(AP Photo/George Frey)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Utah at No. 16 Oregon, 4:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview:

Utah suffered one of the worst losses I’ve seen in a while on Thursday night, when Brandon Taylor, for some unknown reason, decided to foul an Oregon State player firing up a half court prayer at the buzzer. The Utes, who are arguably the second-best team in the Pac-12, will look to bounce-back on Sunday against the best team in the Pac-12, No. 16 Oregon at 4:00 p.m.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. No. 12 SMU will attempt to stay atop the American standings as they travel to South Florida. While the Mustangs won the first matchup between these two teams at home by 14, they’ve dropped their last two games on the road.

2. A few more American contests are going down as East Carolina travels to UConn and Houston heads to Tulsa. The game between the Cougars and Golden Hurricane is especially interesting because both teams are sitting two games back of SMU and trying to make a move on the postseason.

3. No. 5 Iowa continues the soft part of the schedule as they face Illinois on the road. The Hawkeyes posted recent easy victories over Northwestern and Penn State and will be heavily favored again on Sunday.

4. Could be an intriguing game as No. 17 Miami travels to Georgia Tech. Although the Yellow Jackets aren’t a major contender in the ACC, they’ve been tough this season, especially at home. The Hurricanes fell victim to Georgia Tech last season while they were ranked by Marcus Georges-Hunt has to get back on track after a recent slump for that to happen.

5. There is an Atlantic 10 game that will be featured on NBCSN on Sunday: Saint Louis at St. Bonaventure (2:00 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Sunday afternoon.

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.