LAS VEGAS -- Deandre Ayton turned Sin City into his personal playground, and Arizona will head to the NCAA tournament playing like a team capable of a Final Four run.
For the past two days, Ayton has shown that, at his best, he is without question the top player in college basketball. After setting a career-high with 32 points in an overtime win against UCLA on Friday, he matched that total against USC in the Pac-12 championship game Saturday night, leading the Wildcats to an emphatic 75-61 victory at T-Mobile Arena, where the atmosphere mirrored the McKale Center in Tucson.
"Deandre, the dominance that he just put forth -- if there is another player better, I’d like to meet him," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "He put his team on his back, and he played the right way. He absolutely was a one-man wrecking crew these past two days."
It's impossible to not appreciate what Ayton is: A once-in-a-decade-type talent on his way to NBA stardom. He's the closest thing to Shaquille O'Neal the game has seen since the Hall of Fame center retired and will make the Wildcats a tough out when the tournament starts next week.
"He's probably the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft," USC coach Andy Enfield said. "He's a tremendous talent."
Ayton was 2 years old the last time Arizona went to the Final Four, in 2001. The Wildcats have been close several times in Miller’s eight previous seasons -- advancing to the Elite Eight three times and the Sweet 16 another two -- but have yet to find a way to put together a breakthrough run. Some of those teams were perhaps even more talented, top-to-bottom, than this year’s version, with a number of first-round NBA draft picks. But there hasn’t been a transcendent player like Ayton, and Arizona fans will hope that is the difference.
On his own, Ayton is a load to handle, but playing alongside an accomplished 7-footer in senior Dusan Ristic, who has won three Pac-12 titles in his career, gives the Wildcats favorable matchups against just about every team in the country.
"We feel much more comfortable playing together right now than was the case like two or three months ago," Rustic said. "Like, we just have more experience playing together in practice and in games. So now when I catch the ball high post, I exactly know where to throw the ball, and Deandre will catch it and finish it almost a hundred percent."
The Wildcats, who also won the Pac-12 regular-season title, will enter the NCAA tournament on a five-game winning streak and have not lost in regulation in more than a month.
Ayton, who also had 18 rebounds Saturday, admitted that postseason basketball initially came with some nervousness he wasn't used to. He managed just 10 points in the Wildcats' quarterfinal win against Colorado on Thursday and wasn't close to his dominant self.
"I was a little starstruck," he said. "I wasn’t ready, to be honest. I was rushing all my shots against Colorado. Wasn’t taking my time."
The Wildcats are likely looking at a top-four seed, while USC will have to wait until Sunday for confirmation it will be in the 68-team field. Enfield was convinced the Trojans were an NCAA tournament team regardless of what happened this week, but it's now out of their hands.