SALT LAKE CITY - The Arizona Wildcats' road to the Sweet 16 is actually a loop.
Just two miles from Staples Center, where they will appear Thursday against Ohio State, the Wildcats suffered arguably their worst loss of the season, 89-78, at USC on Feb. 27.
Then, thanks to the Pac-12's more spread-out scheduling, the Wildcats had an extra day to sit around and think about it before facing UCLA on March 2. They could think about how the Trojans shot 61.1 percent from the field, think about what was wrong with their defense and think about how their season was slipping away after a 14-0 start.
Arizona (now 27-7) had already essentially cost itself the Pac-12 title by allowing Cal to shoot 65.2 percent in the second half of a Feb. 10 UA loss at McKale, but the USC game sent them over the edge.
So they talked and refocused and, while the results did not immediately show it, believed they became a better team that weekend.
"I think it was the L.A. trip. The USC trip," guard Nick Johnson said. "When we lost to Cal, we knew something was a little off. On the L.A. trip we practiced a little bit better and UCLA game we (defended better) and ever since then in practice really we've locked in and really focused on it."
UA lost at UCLA by five points but coach Sean Miller said he left that game with a different feeling, and he later noted that the following week was critical because the Wildcats had a full five days of defensive-minded practice to prepare for ASU, which they beat 73-58 on the final day of the regular season.
While Arizona still has let up defensively since then in spurts, the Wildcats say their all-around effort has been consistently better since then. They played well at the Pac-12 tournament and coasted into Thursday's NCAA West Regional semifinals with easy wins over Belmont and Harvard at EnergySolutions Arena.
Three players have helped energize the Cats down the stretch:
1. Nick Johnson.
Simplistic as it may sound, as Johnson goes, so do the Wildcats.
Not only offensively, but as the team's top perimeter defender, who played a major role in quieting normally hot-shooting teams from Belmont and Harvard.
Remember how he swatted away that San Diego State shot to preserve the Diamond Head Classic title? Or how he slumped in February, when the Wildcats lost crucial games to Cal, Colorado and USC?
"I take that personally, knowing that I'm the main defensive guy and my energy really affects the team," Johnson said. "I'm taking it personally upon myself to do it every single game and show my team I'm playing really, really hard. It's contagious."
2. Jordin Mayes.
His three-pointer and confidence appears to be back offensively, but that's only half the story with UA's junior backup guard. While scoring eight points on 3-for-7 shooting against Harvard, Mayes also helped slow down a Harvard three-point attack that had been averaging 40.3 percent per game.
Mayes also ate up 19 minutes at a time when Kevin Parrom and Brandon Ashley were in foul trouble, and Grant Jerrett was out with an injured elbow.
"We needed him to play his best and he's stepped up the last month," Miller said.
Parrom, recalling Mayes' success in the 2011 NCAA tournament, put it more dramatically.
"His month," Parrom said, "is the month of March."
3. Mark Lyons.
While Lyons isn't known for defense, his offensive attack created energy on the other end. Having shown early this season he loves clutch situations, Lyons outright basked in the NCAA tournament glow, shooting a collective 20 for 32 from the field and averaging 25 points in two NCAA tournament games over the weekend.
Lyons excelled while darting off ball screens his teammates set for him against both Belmont and Harvard, a phenomenon Johnson said was simply because Lyons is quick.
But Lyons also credits the fact that he's played over the years with people such as Talor Battle, Jimmer Fredette, Jonny Flynn, Isaiah Thomas and Tu Holloway.
"I just studied a lot of great players," Lyons said, "and I stole their moves."
Of course, he also added plenty of his own swagger, which the Wildcats lost during much of Pac-12 play.
"Mark is filled with confidence and when he gets his confidence going, it's contagious on our entire team," Miller said, noting that Lyons has now been a part of four Sweet 16 teams. "I think it's remarkable, really. It shows you how talented he is and it also shows you the bigger the game can really bring out the best in him."
Defense down the stretch
Date Opp. Opp FG% Opp FG% Result
1st half 2nd half
Feb. 27 USC 58.1 65.2 L, 89-78
March 2 UCLA 47.1 46.4 L, 74-69
March 9 ASU 45.0 47.8 W, 73-58
March 14 Colorado 45.8 40.7 W, 79-69
March 15 UCLA 34.4 44.8 L, 66-64
March 21 Belmont 25.9 54.2 W, 81-64
March 23 Harvard 25.0 30.0 W, 74-51
• Who: No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 2 Ohio St.
• Where: Los Angeles
• When: 4:47 p.m. Thursday
• TV: TBS
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM
Jerrett is probable to play Thursday
Arizona Wildcats forward Grant Jerrett is probable to play Thursday against Ohio State after X-rays taken on his right elbow upon his return to Tucson were negative, according to a UA statement Sunday.
Jerrett injured his elbow and nerve while falling during the first half of Arizona's win Saturday over Harvard.
Contact reporter Bruce Pascoe at email@example.com or 573-4145. On Twitter @BrucePascoe.