By Javier Morales
Special from AllSportsTucson.com
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Arizona's season of check marks has another one off the board.
Maui Invitational title … check.
Pac-12 regular-season title … check.
Pac-12 tournament championship … check.
NCAA championship title …
“You tell them, when anyone asks when Arizona last won the Pac-12 championship, you tell them 2015,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said to the MGM Grand Garden Arena crowd Saturday night during the postgame celebration.
The Wildcats' conference tournament monkey-on-the-back, like Elvis did in this town, has left the building. Arizona won its first conference title since 2002, when Luke Walton won the most outstanding player honor.
Behind the emerging Brandon Ashley, Arizona defeated Oregon 80-52 in the Pac-12 tournament title game in front of 12,916 fans. A vast majority of them cheered the Wildcats in what has become McKale Center North in the tournament's three-year run here.
Ashley was selected the conference tournament most outstanding player by averaging 19.2 points in the three games here on 19-of-26 shooting from the field. T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson joined Ashley on the all-tournament team.
“I just want to keep rolling and keep this team on the same plain,” Ashley said. “If we focus, everything will work its way out.”
Miller, in his sixth year at Arizona, lost his first three tries in the conference tournament title game. Dating back to his time at Xavier, he had a personal eight-year run without a conference tournament title.
He made it clear to his team that they needed to put that misery to rest and reward the fans for their support.
“He has been searching for one of these for a long time,” Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “I've been here in this tournament three times and there's been some really tough games each time. “
Arizona succumbed twice here to UCLA in previous years in the infamous “He touched the ball” game in 2013 and the upset last year against hot-shooting Jordan Adams, who Miller hoped would not return for his senior season.
The conference tournament experience was so salty Miller was fined $25,000 two years ago for approaching a ref after the game and for startling a conference staffer in the hallway with his tirade over a technical foul called on him.
“Yeah, I think about it,” Miller said with a smile when asked about how much it means to him to finally take home the trophy.
“You try not to make too much about it. … I haven't been here since 2002. A few of (the losses) have certainly fallen on our coaching staff and recent teams. It isn't as if we've come to Vegas and not played well. We've played well and have lost some heartbreakers in hard-fought games.”
As the NCAA tournament commences this week, expect the national media to harp on the fact that Miller, in his 11th year as a head coach, is the best coach to not make the Final Four.
They should know that it took Mike Krzyzewski 11 years, first at Army then at Duke, to reach his first Final Four. John Wooden did not make it that far until his 14th season at UCLA. Lute Olson.
Miller told CBS last month in its “Men of March” series that he wants to reach the Final Four in the worst way but he is not consumed by it. Back-to-back 30-win seasons, three regular-season Pac-12 titles and now a conference tournament championship indicates to Miller that he is doing something right in spite of a Final Four appearance.
But, rest assured, a journey that far is a significant part of Arizona's check marks toward success.
The confetti filling the air at MGM Grand Garden Arena with Miller and the players holding the conference tournament title trophy is one thing. Being on the grand stage in Indianapolis three weeks from now is quite another.
Johnson knows all about what it takes to be called a champion. He won four consecutive state titles at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. He said he is “blessed” to win another title, but the road remains open for the “big one”.
“If you win that, that's really a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Johnson said.
Conversely, Arizona's veteran players have experienced the heartbreak of getting eliminated in the NCAA tournament. That feeling resonates and serves as motivation with March Madness starting in less than week.
“I don't want this to be over,” McConnell said. “I want to want to leave this team, leave this school. I don't want to leave Tucson.
“I am going to do everything in my power to make sure it does not end.”
Javier Morales, a former Arizona Press Club award winner from Tucson, is a veteran sportswriter based out of the Las Vegas area. He covered Arizona's 1996-97 national championship team as the beat reporter for The Arizona Daily Star. He currently operates the Web site AllSportsTucson.com.