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That empty feeling: Wildcats meekly bow out after ‘hard six-month road’

Sean Miller

Wait one minute ... oh, never mind, the season is over. Photo by Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

The Arizona Wildcats walked slowly off the court. No visible signs of anguish. They just stoically made the march to the locker room for the final time.

It’s almost a relief the season is over.

The 65-54 loss to Bucknell in the first round of the NIT capped a strange and unsatisfying UA basketball season, one that unofficially began Oct. 27 with a home exhibition loss to Seattle Pacific.

In between that game and Wednesday night’s loss to the Bison, the Wildcats won 23 games they largely should have won, lost a few in ways that could keep them up at night through the summer, dealt with at least their fair share of adversity … and just didn’t have the gumption to refuel the tank after being awarded a No. 1 seed in the NIT.

“We didn’t have what I call juice,” coach Sean Miller said of the effort in a loss to Bucknell.

“With this year’s team, that is when we’ve been at our best. We always have to have it. Because if we don’t, we’re not going to overwhelm you with size and depth at this point.

“In many ways,” he added, “we ran out of gas.”

And so the season sputtered and died.

The Wildcats exhausted the last of their emotion after Saturday’s loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament final, a last-possession defeat that relegated Arizona to the NIT, where motivation, as much as anything, is the trickiest hurdle.

“We left a lot in L.A.,” said senior guard Kyle Fogg. “Everybody gave it their all there. I know I’m still hurting. I know everybody else is still hurting, too.”

That’s the hurt that comes from falling short of the NCAA Tournament — the minimum benchmark for success at Arizona.

There are mitigating factors for why the Cats didn’t make it — most notable is the season-ending foot injury Kevin Parrom suffered on Jan. 28 just as he was beginning to be factor after a September shooting — but that doesn’t change the emptiness of being done before the first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament.

“Oh,” said junior forward Solomon Hill, “this is a complete failure.”

I would say that Arizona, after playing its best in February, eventually found its level.

It won most of the games it should have. It never pulled off a grand upset.

This was never a team destined for greatness. Arizona truly was overrated when it started the season 16th in the AP poll.

How many times have you pondered this: Which UA player could have started for any of Lute Olson’s teams that were never lower than a fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament for a 16-year span from 1988 to 2003?

Basically, none.

On one hand, Miller maximized what he had — a nice collection of role players playing out of position.

Jesse Perry could not have done more as a 6-7 center. Hill is a 6-6 wing who averaged a team-high 7.7 rebounds per game as a power forward. Fogg was mostly a no-show Wednesday night, but he worked his tail off for four years and became an All-Pac-12 player who averaged a team-best 13.5 points.

It would be unfair to ask them for any more.

None of the trio provided easy offense, though. The Wildcats could never just pass the ball to Derrick Williams, stand back and watch. They didn’t have MoMo Jones to take charge and go barreling to the hoop. There was no one-on-one player to save the day.

To succeed, this team needed to do all the little things, make the right decisions at the right moments … and grind like crazy on defense. You noticed when Arizona didn’t all that because it had no margin of error to cover for its mistakes.

Like not caring much about Wednesday night’s game.

“This whole year has been very difficult,” Miller said.

“Just ‘hard fought’ is how I would describe it. When you’re hit with the obstacles and adversity we were hit with, and you fighting, it makes for a very challenging and hard six-month road.”

Arizona didn’t have Williams, didn’t have Jones, essentially didn’t have Parrom, lost Jordin Mayes for about five weeks, had freshman big man Sidiki Johnson fail to last a semester, saw post Kyryl Natyazhko disappear to the end of the bench, and it had to play a total of six games without Josiah Turner, whose failure to follow the rules and buy into Miller’s system often left the Wildcats lacking at point guard.

Through it all, these Wildcats, in a span of 10 days, should never, ever have lost on the road to a bad Arizona State team and then at home to Bucknell.

“I can’t speak for the team, but I know I woke up this morning excited for the chance to play basketball,” Hill said.

“I love our fans. I really want to apologize because so many showed up tonight. We felt that since we didn’t make the (NCAA) tournament, nobody would show up. But it was a great crowd. You can’t have a crowd like that and have a team come on the road and beat you like that.”

So ends Miller’s third year at Arizona. His rebuilding timeline was skewed by Williams, who got so good, so fast, that everything seemed possible after the Cats rode his rocket ship to last season’s West Regional final.

But let’s not forget Miller inherited something of a mess after Olson’s chaotic two-year departure, including a two-year scholarship reduction. Miller’s next team will be “all his.” No more Lute recruits. Also, no more grace period.

“I was disappointed,” Miller said of this season.

“I knew a long time ago now when I came to Arizona, it would be a great challenge. And it is.”

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