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LAS VEGAS -- All season Sean Miller held out hope that fourth-ranked Arizona would improve from the free-throw line. The fifth-year head coach has pointed to T.J. McConnell's past success and the look of Aaron Gordon's shooting form and said that the results would eventually change.
Instead, the Wildcats boast just two players above 70 percent from the line, including Pac-12 Conference player of the year Nick Johnson.
But free throws are just one of the few things that have not gone right in a regular season that started with 21 consecutive victories and ended with a three-game lead for the Pac-12 championship. In addition to Johnson's honor, Miller was tabbed the coach of the year, Gordon won freshman of the year and joined Johnson on the league's first team.
Still, as UA (28-3) heads into Thursday's noon tipoff in the conference tournament quarterfinals at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Miller is cautious about something as simple as free throws causing trouble this week and beyond in the NCAA tournament.
"Eventually, if we keep shooting 50 percent from the foul line, we'll lose," Miller said. "You can mask it, you can avoid it, you can talk about we're going to get better."
While the Wildcats continue to have their sights set on improving, the 65.9 percent mark - including eight missed free throws in last week's loss at Oregon - is the reality they also must deal with and make sure doesn't ultimately spoil their postseason.
Top-seeded UA, one of four teams with a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament, arrived Wednesday from Tucson, just before 6 p.m. and long after No. 8 Utah edged No. 9 Washington in the opener, 67-61.
The win gave Utah - arguably the surprise team in the conference - its seventh in 10 games and a third shot at taking down Arizona, which ran away late for a 65-56 win in Tucson and survived overtime for a 67-63 win in Salt Lake City.
"They're really an excellent team," Miller said. "Nobody wants to face them.
"That's an important bye because whoever doesn't get the bye, it's much more difficult for them to win the championship."
Utah led by 10 at the half but quickly found themselves trailing 41-40 after less than 8 1/2 minutes into the second half. Tied at 60 with 40 seconds to play, reserve guard Dakarai Tucker drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer and the Utes (21-10) avoided an early exit.
Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak called the win "the tale of two halves" but said his team was "locked in defensively," deploying a few different zone looks similar to what Arizona saw this season.
"We had a tremendous amount of energy in the first half, got stops, held Washington down to 24 first-half points," Krystkowiak said. "Then we came out in the second half a little bit flat, as our team has been known to do.
"The key, I thought, was getting back into it after a timeout. We were down 1 and made some plays, hit some shots when we needed to and we got some big-time stops. Our kids played just about as well as they could defensively, including the rebounding from start to finish."
The Utes won the battle on the boards, 39-28, and Krystkowiak also noted his team's ability to limit the Huskies to just five assists on 20 made field goals.
But now comes a challenge against the league's top rebounding team. UA held teams to just 30.6 rebounds per game and owned the best margin at plus-8.3 per contest.
Utah guard Delon Wright, who led the way with 15 points, grabbed seven of his team's rebounds and said the focus has to start on the glass against the Wildcats.
Among the Utes' downfalls in the head-to-head series was allowing 20 offensive rebounds in a 40-29 thrashing on the boards in the Jan. 16 loss at McKale Center. Utah cleaned that up in the rematch, winning the battle 37-31 and becoming one of just four teams to do so this season against UA.
"They all crash," Wright, a first-team all-conference selection, said. "I think if we rebound and play good team basketball, we'll have a chance."
The other big number will be the Utes' field goal percentage. The 38.5 percent opponents shot against Arizona tied for the eighth-best mark in the nation this season, along with San Diego State.
Johnson and McConnell, an All-Pac-12 second-team point guard, represented the Wildcats on the conference's five-man all-defensive team. Just as solid defensively is Gordon and the UA frontcourt.
"I know we couldn't put all four or five of us on the defensive team, but it definitely could have been whichever one," Johnson said. "You could have picked one."
Utah shot just under 45 percent in the first-round win but made 10 of 21 attempts in the second half. The Utes were held in the low 40s in both regular-season meetings with the Wildcats.
Second-leading scorer Jordan Loveridge, who had 13 points and nine boards against the Huskies, shot a combined 5 of 26 against UA this season.
"Arizona, you look statistically, is without a doubt the best defensive team in our league," Krystkowiak said. "They hold teams to percentages that are not really in the same neighborhood as a lot of the other 11 teams, points scored. They're real physical.
"They obviously got offensive firepower, but that's what's making them an elite team in college basketball this year. You have a really talented group that's committed to playing defense."
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Click Here to view this Link.Tracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor