As he sat in front of his locker at Providence’s Dunkin Donuts Center on Thursday night, Mark Tollefsen simply cut right down to the nitty-gritty.
“No regrets,” he said.
A day before, sitting in the same stall, he had visions of net-cutting ceremonies and confetti and championships and dreams. Oh, so many dreams. Never in his wildest imagination would he be leaving Providence just a day later, the dreams faded, nightmares in their place after a 65-55 loss to Wichita State ended the Wildcats’ season.
He came to Arizona to win, and the Wildcats did so 25 times this season, 11 times more than Tollefsen’s previous school — the University of San Francisco — did in 2014-15.
So by that standard, the season was a success.
But that is not Arizona’s standard, and Tollefsen, and Sean Miller, know it.
So while yes, there are no regrets, there remained a twinge of sadness.
“I can’t say I have any regrets, because I don’t,” Tollefsen said. “Would I have wanted to go farther? Yeah, that’s everyone’s goal. But I wouldn’t say anything was incomplete. We had a goal to win a national championship, and it didn’t happen, but I wouldn’t say I feel incomplete.”
On Wednesday during Arizona’s open locker room session, Tollefsen couldn’t believe his good fortune.
Here he was, on college basketball’s grandest stage for the first time, taking in every minute, every second, every glance and every moment.
“As soon as we stepped on the plane, I’ve been trying to soak up every minute of it, every experience, even the little things,” he said on Wednesday. “Even this; I’d answer any question you’ve got. I’m enjoying the crap out of this.”
He surveyed the room for a moment, scanning past Ryan Anderson — in the NCAA Tournament for the first time as well — and over to Gabe York, who was soon to play in his fourth. He looked at Justin Simon and Ray Smith and Allonzo Trier and he realized just how absolutely good the Wildcats have it.
Not every team in the country is blessed to have a ticket punched to the Big Show, and only a handful of teams in the land can count on it on an annual basis.
“It’s surreal, really,” he said. “You look at the younger guys who are in here, who are like this is just what we do, and they have to realize, it’s just not like this everywhere. It’s really an honor to be in this tournament, and it’s something you’ll remember forever. It doesn’t happen to every team. To be here, respect it and be honored to be in it.”
After the game — a game that Arizona trailed all but twice — there would be criticisms that the Wildcats did not honor the process, that they caved under the pressure. That they wilted. The criticism could not be lobbed at Tollefsen, who played just seven minutes, after playing just five against Oregon in the team’s Pac-12 semifinal loss.
At times this season, Tollefsen was a key cog.
When Kaleb Tarczewski went down for weeks early in the season, Tollefsen’s transfer from the Dons looked like the savviest move Sean Miller had made since cutting Swedish Fish from his diet. He had 13 points in a two-point overtime win over Santa Clara, 17 in a December throttling of Missouri. His last major contribution came in a crucial win over USC, when he had 13 points in a Valentine’s Day win over the 23rd-ranked Trojans.
“I had pretty high expectations, and would I have loved to play a little more, produce a little more? Of course,” he said. “But this was the unselfish thing to do, to come here to win.”
He’d already flirted with individual glory in the Bay Area.
He averaged 7.2 points as a freshman out of Danville, Calif., and increased his average to 10.5 as a sophomore. He burst onto Arizona’s radar as a junior, scoring 14 points for the Dons, and the Wildcats wrestled his services from suitors including nearby Cal, Oklahoma State and UCLA.
And even though Arizona didn’t win as much as he’d expect, and he didn’t play as much as he’d expect, particularly down the stretch, Tollefsen said transferring to Arizona was “the best decision I’ve ever made.”
“It was about being a part of something that was bigger than myself,” he said. “I’d done all these things individually, but great players win championships and win a lot of games, and I want to be known as a great player in college basketball. The biggest thing for me was to go to a place that was going to win.”
In the end, Tollefsen will have to decide if 25 was enough. They didn’t win a conference championship, nor a Pac-12 Tournament Title. They didn’t win a tournament game, even.
But regrets? Regrets? Come on.
“When it comes to support of the fans and every guy in this room, down to every manager, I love every single one of them, especially our fans,” he said. “Coming from a place, a smaller place, and coming to this big place where you walk around and walk into a restaurant and everyone wants to take a picture with you or get an autograph …
“This was an experience I’ll never forget.”