In a woeful Pac-10 conference racked with underachieving teams, there's actually an uplifting story emerging from Tucson this season.
Left for dead entering conference play after a 30-point loss to BYU dropped their record to 6-6, the Arizona Wildcats are in the midst of a surprising resurgence. They've won four straight to improve to 12-9 overall and 6-3 in league, good enough for a first-place tie with California entering tonight's road test at Washington.
"Not to sound like a coach, but teams in conferences sitting atop at the halfway point sometimes finish toward the bottom," first-year coach Sean Miller said in a conference call earlier this week. "At the end if we were in first place would I be surprised? Then I would probably say yes. I would be very excited and surprised."
While some of Arizona's success has to do with the weakness of the conference, the Wildcats also have improved because their supporting cast is doing more to complement star point guard Nic Wise.
High-scoring forward Derrick Williams has emerged as the favorite to win the Pac-10's newcomer of the year award, fellow freshman Kevin Parrom has returned from injury to provide defense and rebounding and underachieving wing Jamele Horne is actually making progress on both ends of the floor.
The Wildcats have been to the NCAA tournament for 25 consecutive seasons, only two shy of North Carolina's record 27-year run that ended in 2001. That streak remains in serious jeopardy, yet there's a glimmer of hope now where there was none a few weeks ago.
A 7-2 finish would put the Wildcats at 19 victories entering the conference tournament, including wins in 11 of their last 13 games.And even if Arizona falls short of that goal, three wins in the wide-open Pac-10 tournament is hardly out of the question.
"Performance is the best indicator for getting into the tournament," Miller said. You can't buy your way into the tournament. You can't politic your way into the tournament. You have to perform. I think if teams play well in February, then they put themselves in great position."