Whatever happens Saturday, Arizona can cut down the nets.
It might not seem real, but it’s been 11 years — 11 years! — since the Wildcats have been able to do that in McKale Center.
Yep, 11 years since that young team of Michael Wright, Loren Woods, Richard Jefferson, Jason Gardner, Gilbert Arenas and Luke Walton beat Cal 70-61 on the final day of the regular season to clinch a share of the Pac-10 title.
There have been two conference titles for Arizona since then — in 2003 and 2005 — but both of those were clinched on the road.
It’s been 11 years since coach Lute Olson climbed a ladder under the south basket at McKale and clipped a strand of the net.
“I think for anybody that would be the dream come true,” said senior forward Jamelle Horne, musing after Thursday’s 70-59 victory against Oregon State. “I think it’s going to be a big step forward for our program to cut those nets down Saturday.”
Of course, you want to do it after a win to earn the outright Pac-10 championship. The Wildcats (26-4 overall, 13-4 Pac-10) can do just that by beating Oregon in a noon game Saturday on CBS.
The stage is set.
(Do you really want to cut down the nets after a loss? Arizona needs to grab it all, including a 17-0 record at home.)
Arizona leads UCLA by one game and either way — shared title or out — the Wildcats’ total of Pac-10 championships goes from 11 to 12, and the first under coach Sean Miller.
Counting his time at Xavier, his teams have finished in at least a tie for first in four of the past five seasons.
He figures the pressure is off now. He figured his players, knowing a championship was at stake, were wound a little tightly against Oregon State. He expects a looser team Saturday — looser in a good way of just going out and playing the game like his guys know how to do.
This remains a flawed team, and that should make the celebration Saturday afternoon all the more special. This team exceeded expectations.
Check out this roster. Check out that 1999-2000 Arizona roster. UA sophomore Derrick Williams is the only guy on the current team that could have started back then.
Through a couple of completely expected hiccups, this group has deployed depth and the star power of Williams to accelerate the rebuilding process under Miller.
It took a special, and largely unlikely, set of circumstances to get here. Arizona’s coaching search was floundering — and Miller seemed unlikely to take the job, until he woke up one morning and realized he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Three starters then fell into his lap that summer, as Williams, MoMo Jones and Solomon Hill bailed from USC after one-time Arizona coaching target Tim Floyd resigned amid an NCAA investigation.
Williams has been better — way better, off-the-charts better — than anybody had a right to dream.
Saturday will be a team to celebrate all that — with a win, an outright Pac-10 title … and a net-cutting ceremony not seen at McKale in 11 years.