By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now
LOS ANGELES -- You wanted it. I wanted it. The Arizona Wildcats wanted it.
West regional final.
"It's a completely different team, completely different year," said Arizona junior forward Brandon Ashley.
Whoa. Hold on, there. The beauty of second-seeded Arizona facing top-seeded Wisconsin on Saturday at Staples Center is that they aren't completely different teams, that so many of the principal players from last year's riveting overtime game are the same. Those differences Ashley talked about? That's just the hot sauce atop this already spicy matchup.
"Obviously, we wanted this," said UA junior guard Gabe York.
"Making it to the Elite Eight is an accomplishment in itself, but knowing that Wisconsin is right there makes it a little bit sweeter. But we have to win in order for that to be really sweet."
The Badgers won 64-63 last season when they were the No. 2 seed going against No. 1 Arizona. Here are eight Elite Eight things to know as the Cats try to pull off the switcheroo:
1. Ashley, Ashley, Ashley
Perhaps you've heard. If Ashley hadn't been hurt last season, Arizona would have beaten the Badgers. That's the storyline, and UA fans are sticking to it.
Without him, UA floundered to guard Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who went inside and outside to pour in 28 points while taking a third of his team's shots. He was just too athletic for Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski.
"Kaleb is a big guy who can bang on the inside," Ashley said. "Me, I'm more versatile on the outside."
Mix in a potential dash of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Swiss Army knife of defenders, and the Wildcats hope they have the resources to hold Frank the Tank to something close to his average of 18 points per game, not 28.
"Just throwing different looks at him will make it more complicated if he's not facing the same defense the whole entire night," Ashley said.
2. Don't forget about Zeus
Tarczewski is coming off a 12-point, 12-rebound effort against Xavier, coming up with a stand-off against Musketeers big man Matt Stainbrook (17 points, 10 rebounds).
"I have to almost tell him, 'You played great,'" said Arizona graduate assistant coach Joseph Blair, who works with the Wildcats' post players. "He's like, 'I played good, but the other guy still had 17 and 10.' I said, 'It's all right, the other guy went home and you're still playing.'
"But that's just the way he is. He's always looking for room for improvement, which is a great thing for him."
Given Wisconsin's size, with monstrous Kentucky likely looming beyond that, Tarczewski will have to be at his very best if the Wildcats are going to reach the finish line.
3. Sure, but who does Zeus guard?
So, if it's Ashley on Kaminsky, then the Wildcats either have to go small, with guard Gabe York subbing for Tarczewski, or else the big fella has to guard athletic 6-8 forward Nigel Hayes. Not optimum for Arizona.
Blair said that Tarczewski will be better ready this time around for those times when he does have to defend Kaminsky.
"We're preparing him better than we did last year as to what to expect," Blair said.
"I think Wisconsin kind of caught us off guard last year, as well. We had only two days to scout them, and they did better things than what we expected them to do. We didn't really give Kaleb the information he needed to be as effective as he typically is defensively.
"This year, he's well-prepared after playing against it, and we're well-prepared as a staff to put him in the right position to play well."
4. Free throws!
Arizona is shooting 87.1 percent (61 of 70) from the line in three NCAA Tournament games. That sentence has a 37.9 percent chance of being a jinx.
5. The elephant in the room
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was the best current coach to never get to the Final Four … until he did last season, climbing over Arizona and passing that unwanted title to Cats coach Sean Miller.
This is Miller's fourth regional final as a head coach -- plus, he was in one as an assistant -- and he is still looking to advance to college basketball's final weekend. Frustrating for sure, but what else can he do but acknowledge that hole in his resume?
"You know, if you don't embrace it, what do you do?" he said.
"Not many people ask us about winning the Pac-12 regular season championship in back-to-back years like we have. The focus is always on that last game. Sometimes in too big of a way. But for us as a program, we compete to be in the Final Four, and right now we've competed regularly. …
"The more opportunities and chances you get, eventually it will break through. And that's how I look at it. If you let it define you, or you tighten up, that's not going to work."
6. Wisconsin is way more than Kaminsky
So, if Kaminsky doesn't beat you, who will?
Start with junior forward Sam Dekker, who is averaging 20 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. He was the buzz of last summer's college camp circuit, dominating at the LeBron James Skills Academy, leading to various preseason All-America honors. He's playing like one now. Hayes is a special talent who has developed an outside shot as a sophomore.
"And," Blair added, "they have two guards who can shoot the hell out of the ball, too."
Oh, is that all?
What you need to know is the Badgers play slow but are the nation's most efficient offensive team.
"They shoot the ball really, really well and they don't turn the ball over," York said.
"They're very smart with their schemes offensively, and they never deviate from what they do well. We have to be smart and patient defensively to understand that with eight, nine seconds left on the shot clock, they are going to try to get in their back-door cuts if we get lackadaisical."
7. York redemption
Motivation for York has come from missing all four of his shots last season against Wisconsin, finishing with one point.
"For me personally, that loss weighed a lot," he said. "I just want to show that one point in an Elite Eight game is not who I am. I'm a lot better than that. I don't want to try to go out this year and be the hero, but I also understand that I can help this team win."
York has hit eight 3-point shots in the past two games -- and that shooting is as key as anything as Arizona tries to keep advancing.
8. T.J. McConnell is Arizona best player
He's not just "most valuable" or "most indispensable" or whatever other half-measured title you want to give the senior point guard. T.J. McConnell is simply UA's most outstanding basketball player.
"There are times when you're like, 'He's having a great game but he hasn't hit that next level yet," Blair said.
McConnell hit that level against Ohio State and eventually found it again late against Xavier. He's spending a lot of time talking during the NCAA Tournament about his "refuse to lose" mentality, and for whatever he lacks in language creativity, he's been right on the nose with the message.
Not going to start betting against him now.
Arizona 65, Wisconsin 63.