LOS ANGELES - Seven weeks ago, this team lost to Washington. It left the floor at Edmundson Pavilion on a Saturday afternoon stunned and embarrassed, victims of perhaps the most colossal upset of this season of upsets.
This team was listless in Seattle. Outplayed by a team that was winless in the Pac-10. Final Four? Arizona couldn't even beat the bottom of the Pac-10. It looked more prepared for the Big Sky than March's Big Dance.
Now, seven weeks later, this team is grateful to the Huskies. It is part of the Elite Eight, one step from the Final Four and feeling awfully good about itself again.
Arizona believes a slumbrous afternoon in February scared it into becoming the pride of March.
"That game was a realization check," Arizona guard Reggie Geary said last night after the Wildcats beat Louisville 82-70 in the West Regional semifinal. "We all went home that day and we were all like really sick. I mean they didn't just beat us. They kicked our butts.
"After we beat Washington State, if you asked all the players, in their minds, they thought the road trip was over. Then we went to Washington and they took it to us.
"We had to look at ourselves in the mirror after that game and we didn't like what we saw. We knew we had to change some things and we did a good job of changing."
Good job? Since that 74-69 loss to Washington, Arizona (28-5) has won 11 of 12. It beat UCLA by 24 and California by 19 and Washington State by 16. A win tomorrow over Missouri and it will play in the Final Four.
Arizona used to be Team Heimlich. Show it the initials NCAA and it would gag all the way back to Tucson. No team was too small. East Tennessee State? Arizona lost in the first round in 1992. Santa Clara? The same fate a year later.
March Madness for Arizona was insanity. The way it played was scandalous. NCAAgate.
"Losing to Santa Clara was big-time hard. The summer was rough," Geary said. "I came back to Southern California for the summer leagues and everybody was saying to me, `How could Santa Clara get you all?' It was tough. But I think it made us stronger. We were determined not to let it happen again."
There is a championship swagger that was missing from recent Arizona teams. It wasn't scarred by the previous tournament losses. It was fortified.
"I think we're proving something to ourselves first and then to the nation," Geary said. "By going out and winning these games the nation will get the message. The Dick Vitales and all the people saying we can't do it, we're showing them all up."
Arizona turned Clifford Rozier, Louisville's 6-foot-9 All-America center, into a frustrated heap of indifference.
He took only four shots in 36 minutes, finishing with five points. He was muscled by Arizona center Joseph Blair. And if he spun past Blair, there always was weakside help from Geary or another Arizona guard, slapping at him, stripping the ball from him, tormenting him.
After 20 minutes of it, Rozier seemed to surrender. He conceded this defeat long before the final buzzer.
"In answer to your question, yes, we do play defense and yes, we have for a long time," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who is obviously enjoying this I-told-you-so trip to the tournament. "No question the key to the ballgame was our defense."
Meanwhile, the Wildcat offense did what it does best, letting its lethal troika of guards drift around the three-point arc and drop jumpers over Louisville's switching man-to-man, or drive and dish to each other.
Geary hit five of seven shots. Damon Stoudamire, who is fighting a shooting slump, still dished seven assists. And magnificent senior Khalid Reeves scored 29 points, including five of 10 from behind the arc.
Reeves is to this team what Sean Elliott was to Arizona's 1988 Final Four team. He is the confidence builder. The go-to guarantee. He is playing the best college basketball west of Purdue's Glenn Robinson.
"I've been very consistent all season, but for the NCAAs I've tried to lift my level up," said Reeves, who is averaging 30.3 points in the three tournament games. "It's a one-game elimination. No one wants to lose. I play with that fire because I don't want to lose.
"It's not really a desperation. It's more about survival," he said. "You just want to survive. That's the way I look at it.
"I scored 40 points against Michigan this season, and I thought that was coming again tonight. But I got some cramps in my calves and that slowed me down some. But it's coming. I'm not in a zone yet. It's coming soon."
Reeves grins into a television camera and you get the feeling he knows something we're just starting to learn.
This year Arizona is no choke, no joke.