I sat courtside at Seattle’s Key Arena a few days before Christmas 2011, as Gonzaga built a 10-0 lead over Arizona. It was soon 14-0 and then 22-4 as Sean Miller burned three early timeouts.
It didn’t help.
It was perhaps the only time in the last 25 years of watching UA basketball that I thought Arizona had no chance.
Arizona trailed 39-21 at halftime and Miller, in his third UA season, knew his club was in over its head. The only other times that happened in a quarter-century was when Jimmer Fredette scored a McKale Center-record 49 points against the Wildcats in December 2009, Miller’s first season, and when Louisville smothered Arizona in the 2009 Sweet 16, Russ Pennell’s final game as the UA interim coach.
Miller did a slow burn in that made-for-TV game against Gonzaga. After the game he told me the UA needed to recruit someone like the Zags’ Sam Dower, then an off-the-bench player, and now the club’s standout power forward. Dower scored 10 points that day.
Imagine that: Two years ago Arizona coveted a Gonzaga sub.
Today, Dower and the Wildcats meet again, in the third round at San Diego’s Viejas Arena. Motivated by that 71-60 loss in Seattle, Miller was relentless in pursuit of a front line to match Gonzaga’s Elias Harris, Robert Sacre and Dower.
So much has changed in that span. Miller recruited prep All-America front-liners Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Grant Jerrett, Angelo Chol and Aaron Gordon.
It was almost overkill, but given the transitory nature of college basketball, Arizona arrives at tonight’s game with three of those six in uniform. The script has flipped. It will be Gonzaga coach Mark Few who looks at the Arizona roster and wishes he had a few like Tarczewski and Gordon, and especially someone like Hollis-Jefferson off the bench.
The Dower of 2011-12 is the Hollis-Jefferson of 2013-14.
“Those guys are good, they’re always good,” said UA guard Nick Johnson. “You know that Gonzaga is well coached and that it can win big games. They’ve got our total respect.”
In that December 2011 game in Seattle, Arizona used Josiah Turner and Jordin Mayes at point guard. That seems like eons ago.
But Gonzaga, too, has improved.
In Seattle, current Zags starters David Stockton, Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos were dreadful. They combined to shoot 3 for 21 from the field — and still whipped Arizona.
It’s a stretch to say Gonzaga and Arizona are the West’s two leading basketball programs. UCLA is loaded and has the resources to remain that way year after year.
But it was Gonzaga that fully exhibited Arizona how far it had fallen in the transition from Lute Olson to Miller. If nothing else, tonight’s game will be a measure of how much the UA has grown.