HANSEN

Greg Hansen: Loss provides closure; Miller Era begins in earnest

2012-03-15T00:00:00Z 2012-03-15T07:15:36Z Greg Hansen: Loss provides closure; Miller Era begins in earnestGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 15, 2012 12:00 am  • 

This is what happened in the 139 days since Arizona opened the season with a humbling loss to Seattle Pacific: There were 77 practices, 35 games, a crippling loss at Arizona State, a White-Out, a Red-Out and, finally, Wednesday night, a Knock Out.

This was a different kind of One and Done. Wednesday's 65-54 loss to the Bucknell Bison wasn't as upsetting or hurtful as a One and Done in the NCAA tournament. Rather, it was in some ways a relief. It is, after five messy transition seasons, The End.

It was the final payment in the collapse of the Lute Olson Empire.

Losing to Bucknell was a lamentable bookend to the humbling season opener against Seattle Pacific, a 139-day stretch in which Sean Miller somehow won 23 games with the type of roster that another coach might have produced 17 or 18 victories.

When the Wildcats return in November, Miller will finally have His Guys, a roster recruited and evaluated fully by him. He will no longer have leftovers, hand-me-downs and not-ready-for-prime-time-players. He will have what he didn't have this year: size, depth and shooting.

The Sean Miller Era starts now.

To his credit, Miller has always taken the bullet and never linked the current hardships to Russ Pennell or Kevin O'Neill or anybody. In the same way he showed respect for the NIT, Miller has gone beyond what was necessary in his praise of Olson and all that Arizona basketball has meant since 1985.

In some ways, Wednesday's loss was a celebration of Arizona basketball. On short notice, 8,433 fans paid to watch a mostly insignificant game. Compare that to the dreadful audiences that Washington (2,801), Stanford (1,339) and Oregon (5,158) drew in their NIT openers Tuesday.

While Wednesday's crowd was 6,000 below capacity, the sustained noise and exuberance in the building was a testament to the staying power UA basketball has in this town. It should have reinforced Miller's decision not to coach at Maryland and provided of glimpse of what lies ahead.

In his spacious locker room, open to the media Wednesday for the first time, UA junior Solomon Hill put the season in context: "We aren't living off anybody's past," he said. "We have a new coach and things happen. We lost."

Hill made a public apology to the 8,433 who chose to stand and cheer rather than sit and mope for the entire 40 minutes Wednesday.

"Preparation going into the game didn't go as smoothly and as well as it should have."

The Wildcats were a combination of flat, sluggish and disinterested.

"I don't think we expected this to happen," said senior guard Kyle Fogg. "It just didn't feel right. I don't know what it was. Nothing felt right."

Bucknell isn't bad. C'mon, if you have followed the Pac-12 this season, you know bad when you see it, and Bucknell could play, or beat, most Pac-12 teams any night.

The Bison's center, Mike Muscala was the best player on the court, scoring 20 points, gathering nine rebounds, playing with such effectiveness that it was tempting to picture how good Arizona could have been had it been fortunate enough to put Muscala in its lineup.

The Wildcats got Bucknell's best shot, and in 2012, given Arizona's limitations, that was too much to handle.

Miller spoke as much (or more) about Saturday's loss to Colorado - he called it "a grave disappointment" - than he did about losing to Bucknell. He spoke more in the broad picture of 35 games than he did about the final game. He spoke about the "breaking point" being Kevin Parrom's injuries, and avoided making more of the Bucknell game than is necessary.

"We just didn't have the juice tonight," he said. "And we really need it because we're not going to overwhelm teams with size and depth. Tonight we just ran out of gas."

When Arizona lost to Seattle Pacific in the Oct. 27 opener, it was interpreted as a freak. But it wasn't. The Wildcats were seriously flawed then: They started Kyryl Natyazhko at center and played him 24 minutes; they gave since-departed freshman forward Sidiki Johnson 14 minutes in that game.

They soon had to reinvent themselves as Natyazhko was unable to be productive, and Johnson, who was kicked off the team, wasn't mature enough to handle the responsibilities of being a college basketball player.

In retrospect, this was a group that could have gone 18-17, or thereabouts. That it got to the final game of the Pac-12 tournament, one bucket from winning the dang thing, is almost preposterous.

If the UA and its fans can take one thing from Wednesday's NIT appearance it's that it's difficult to manufacture emotion for a game that has so little meaning. Since Arizona began a streak of 25 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in 1985, teams in the Pac-12 have played in 102 NIT games.

Who knew? No one in Tucson paid any attention.

On the wall in Arizona's locker room, under the heading "ALL IN" is a placard that says "embrace the high standards" of UA basketball.

Losing to Bucknell is a funny way to show it, but those high standards remain in place; the expectations for 2012-13 will go far beyond the Pac-12 tournament and the NIT.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

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


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