BASKETBALL

Arizona basketball: Cats' task: Return to glory

2012-03-18T00:00:00Z 2014-07-24T10:48:04Z Arizona basketball: Cats' task: Return to gloryBruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 18, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Throughout their joyful run to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight in 2011, the Arizona Wildcats' favorite slogan became this Twitter hashtag: #weneverleft.

In other words, even after the messy coaching transition from Lute Olson to Sean Miller, the Wildcats still considered themselves a perennial national power.

But this season, well, they left.

The early departure of star forward Derrick Williams to the NBA draft last spring peeled off the veneer of a program that is still recovering from years of damaged recruiting and instability.

With a group of players left over from the transition era, and newcomers Miller recruited and signed, the Wildcats managed to cobble together 23 wins and reach the Pac-12 tournament final.

But, in the end, they left.

When the NCAA tournament finishes up its first full weekend today, the Wildcats will be nowhere to be found. Nor did they make it into the second round of NIT games that stretch over this weekend, having lost to Bucknell 65-54 in the first round of the consolation tournament on Wednesday.

After making a seven-win run through February to get their postseason hopes up, the Wildcats instead crashed in an 87-80 loss at ASU on March 4 that torpedoed their NCAA at-large hopes and then tossed away an automatic NCAA bid by losing to sixth-seeded Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament final on March 10.

"To tell you the truth, I think it was a complete failure," UA forward Solomon Hill said. "Beating Cal and in the Pac-12 we showed flashes of being good as a team. We had our chances. We won 23 games. But we lost in the first round of the NIT, so I think it's a complete failure."

Williams' departure was one thing, forcing the Wildcats to take a bunch of role players from 2010-11 and form a go-to committee of Hill, Kyle Fogg and Jesse Perry.

But the Wildcats couldn't even start that process before they lost versatile potential starter Kevin Parrom to a bullet that entered the side of his right knee, initially sapping the feeling in Parrom's lower right leg as well as the Wildcats' morale.

Then there were the repeated suspensions of freshman guard Josiah Turner, the dismissal of freshman Sidiki Johnson, and a bizarre trio of midseason ejections.

"We really got hit with a lot of things," UA coach Sean Miller said. "Before the first ball bounced … Kevin being shot and all the things that we entered the season with, there was not a tremendous amount of room for error. But that was taken from us right away and throughout. We kept fighting."

The Wildcats did improve gradually as the season went on, in part because they couldn't have started at a much lower baseline. Arizona lost to Division II Seattle Pacific in an October exhibition and, already, there were strains.

UA slogged its way through a difficult trip to New York in mid-November, beating St. John's and losing to Mississippi State at Madison Square Garden.

While Parrom enjoyed the emotional trip home to the city where he was shot and his mother died within the previous two months, Harlem native Sidiki Johnson quickly became so disenchanted that he refused to return home with the team after he did not play against the Bulldogs.

That was one potential starting center gone. The other started fading at New Mexico State on Nov. 29, when the Wildcats moved 6-11 Kyryl Natyazhko out of the starting lineup and went with a smaller group featuring Perry at center.

Against all but the teams with big and skilled centers - such as UCLA twins David and Travis Wear - Perry thrived on his quickness and toughness. But it took a toll on him, and by the last game, Bucknell big man Mike Muscala had 20 points and nine rebounds to lead the Bison.

"I did a lot, for myself, and I can definitely say for the school, for this team," Perry said. "I put a lot on the line. I went out there and fought every day. I battled with some of the best big guys. Never once did I give up, never once did I complain."

Indeed, Miller repeatedly praised Perry for his efforts, while also constantly citing the work ethic of Fogg as well as the consistency of Hill. Fogg and Hill wound up making the Pac-12's 10-man all-conference team, while Perry made honorable mention.

The Wildcats also witnessed the emergence of senior guard Brendon Lavender, who went from being known as the best shooter in practice to the Pac-12's best percentage three-point shooter.

But there were still plenty of holes. UA often forced shooting guard Nick Johnson to point guard, especially for games when Turner was suspended and when backup combo guard Jordin Mayes was lost for three weeks to a foot stress fracture in February.

Inside, with Natyazhko eventually slipping out of the rotation, the Wildcats could only turn to agile freshman Angelo Chol, but he worked through bouts of underconfidence that undermined his ability to aggressively block or change shots.

Together, the Wildcats managed to finish fourth in the Pac-12 but couldn't find enough to beat sixth-seeded Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament, and the loss was so devastating that Miller and several players said they weren't over it by the time Bucknell came to town.

So they left.

Maybe next year, with four highly touted incoming freshmen, plus whatever additional talent Miller secures this spring, the Wildcats may return.

But Fogg won't be there if it happens. He'll take with him the empty memory of his senior-year finish and maybe, in time, also the memories of a Sweet 16 run as a freshman and an Elite Eight appearance as a junior.

"This isn't really what I had in mind, going out like this, Fogg said. "But I've got no regrets. I tried as hard as I could in the offseason. I tried my best to lead my team and came up short. Next year, I expect them to do a lot better."

On StarNet: Follow the Wildcats through the offseason on Bruce Pascoe's blog at azstarnet.com/pascoe

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


AP Top 25


Free Wildcats Sports Newsletter

University of Arizona sports news and blog headlines, delivered daily

Follow the Arizona Daily Star

Featured businesses

View more...

Deals, offers & events

View more...