Believe it: Arizona Wildcats in Elite Eight so soon after falling from elite statusby Javier Morales on Mar. 25, 2011, under Sports
If somebody was lost at sea since 2007 and returned to hear the news about Arizona qualifying for the Elite Eight on Thursday, what would the reaction be?
“That’s great to hear. Lute’s finally got them back where they belong. Great to see it happen after that collapse in 2005 against Illinois. When is he hanging it up? What is he 80?”
You were lost only four years ago, but since then, Lute Olson took a leave of absence and eventually retired. In the meantime, a couple of coaches replaced him as caretakers, each for a season, and then they finally hired this young, 42-year-old guy named Sean Miller.
Arizona is in the Elite Eight and Lute is not the coach? What?
Believe it. Nobody, not even Miller, can say they are not surprised. Last season, the Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament … (interrupted)
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Didn’t make NCAA tournament? Don’t they go every year?
Until Miller’s first year last season they went 25 straight years. But it’s not his fault the streak was snapped. The interim coaches — Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell — did not actively recruit in the two years after Lute left. A lot of turnover occurred as Miller brought in five of his own guys last year — three at the last minute because the USC coach left amid turmoil and those guys shifted their allegiance to Arizona. Miller told the Tucson media that he has a three-year plan to coach Arizona back to prominence.
Hold on. Arizona lost Olson, used two interim coaches, hired Miller … lost out on some recruits, all in the last four years … didn’t make the NCAA tournament last year. … and this guy Miller, in only his second year, has Arizona in the Elite Eight?
Like I said. Believe it. The Wildcats also won the regular-season Pac-10 title this year.
C’mon. Being lost at sea is troubling enough for my brain to process.
In my opinion, Miller’s coaching performance and the Wildcats’ 93-77 dominating win over No. 1 seed and defending national champion Duke on Thursday in Anaheim ranks as one of the program’s top five victories in their history.
Not to beat my own drum, but I have followed the Wildcats since Fred Snowden coached in the early 1970s. I sat in McKale Center with the 6,000 or so fans in Olson’s first year at Arizona in 1983-84 after the embarrassing year of Ben Lindsey as head coach. Yes, I also attended most of the games when Lindsey’s team went 4-24.
I covered the Wildcats for The Arizona Daily Star during their historic run through the NCAA tournament in 1997. I have watched probably more than 1,100 Arizona basketball games in my lifetime (I turn 44 in July).
Considering the state of the UA program the last three years, it is a no-brainer to me to place the win over the Blue Devils and Mike Krzyzewski in the Top 5 category of significant victories.
The honor roll:
1. 1997 Sweet 16 vs. Kansas. Arizona’s 85-82 win over No. 1-ranked Kansas, which was only one overtime loss from a perfect season, has no equal. The Jayhawks featured four future pros in Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard and Jacque Vaughn. The Wildcats placed fifth in the Pac-10 that year and had nine regular-season defeats before advancing on their magical title run.
2. 1997 Championship vs. Kentucky. The Wildcats’ 84-79 win in overtime over Kentucky is their greatest accomplishment because it is a national title with the eyes of the world watching. I stick to my guns, however, about the win over 1997 juggernaut Kansas as the top victory in the program in terms of difficulty and significance.
3. 2011 Sweet 16 vs. Duke. This 93-77 drubbing may not rate as high as the top two, but as far as overall performance — from Derrick Williams’ dominance to Lamont “MoMo” Jones’ playmaking to Jamelle Horne’s spirited play and Solomon Hill’s and Kevin Parrom’s shooting and defensive play — no other performance in Wildcat history might compare. Again, the circumstances of how far Miller has taken this recently faltering program in such little time has this game rated high. If Arizona beats UConn on Saturday to reach the Final Four, that victory could be No. 2 as the most significant in the program’s history because this hard-to-believe story will get richer.
4. 1988 Elite Eight vs. North Carolina. To many of the Wildcats’ followers this 70-52 win over the Tar Heels is the most prideful victory in Arizona history. Arizona advanced to its first Final Four in school history only five seasons after Lindsey’s debacle, and the Wildcats did it at the hands of Dean Smith and the vaunted Tar Heels. The two most popular UA hoops players in school history — Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott — are part of this historic team.
5. 1997 Final Four vs. North Carolina. Former UA player and assistant coach Josh Pastner told me after the Wildcats defeated the Tar Heels 66-58 that the Wildcats chanted “Play on Monday! Play on Monday!” before the game. The Wildcats achieved playing on Monday in the national title for the first time in school history behind the steady play of freshman point guard Mike Bibby, whose awe-inspiring play along with Final Four MVP Miles Simon in the 1997 run, is rivaled now by what we’re seeing from Williams.
Honorable mention: Arizona’s 88-76 victory in 1986 behind Elliott late in the season at UCLA enabled the Wildcats to clinch at least a share of the Pac-10 title, which they later won outright. The UA began its Pac-10 prominence under Olson only three years after the Wildcats finished 1-17 in the league under Lindsey. Adding spice to the story, the win came at the hands of John Wooden’s old program and standard-bearer of the conference. … And, of course, victories that deserve mention are those that enabled the Wildcats to advance to the 1994, 1997 and 2001 Final Fours (Louisville, Providence and Illinois, respectively), and the win over Michigan State in the 2001 Final Four that set up a national championship showdown against Duke, which the Blue Devils won. … The sentimental favorite of many long-standing Arizona fans is the 1976 Sweet 16 win over UNLV, a 114-109 overtime classic in Los Angeles. That moved the Wildcats to their first Elite Eight appearance, where they would lose to host UCLA. At any rate, the thriller over the Running Rebels and Jerry Tarkanian in 1976 is clearly the best win in the Snowden era.