Carmelo Anthony may have led Syracuse to the 2003 NCAA tournament title but, the way Jack Murphy sees it, he had a little help.
So the NAU head coach, who was a senior manager for the Arizona Wildcats when they were ranked No. 1 for most of that 2002-03 season, let the then-Nuggets star know it while Murphy was a Denver staffer from 2006-09.
“I told Carmelo all the time, ‘We’d have beaten Syracuse in the Final Four,’ “ said Murphy, whose Lumberjacks visit McKale Center tonight. “We were better than Kansas that January and if we had gotten by them (in the Elite Eight), we’d have beaten Syracuse.”
Of course, the truth will never be known.
Arizona did win by 17 points at Kansas in January 2003 but lost to the Jayhawks in heartbreaking fashion when it counted more, 78-75 in the NCAA West Region final, so the Wildcats never had a chance to play in that Final Four.
But what was true was Arizona being the dominant team for most of the 2002-03 season, the last time it held the No. 1 spot in the Top 25 polls until the UA gained the top spot on Dec. 9 this season.
And the Wildcats knew it.
“The feeling around the team was that we felt we were the best team in the country,” Murphy said.
The feeling now appears to be slightly different.
While the Wildcats have exuded confidence en route to a 12-0 start, they have outwardly embraced their No. 1 ranking as a reward and symbol of the significant improvement they have made since coach Sean Miller began rebuilding the program in April 2009.
Back in 2002-03, being No. 1 was, well, expected.
Those Wildcats were led by point guard Jason Gardner and forward Luke Walton, two veterans of their 2001 Final Four team, and were so loaded that future NBA star Andre Iguodala came off the bench as a freshman. So did Hassan Adams, who went on to become the UA’s seventh-leading career scorer.
Arizona also had future NBA players in then-sophomores Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire.
The 2002-03 Wildcats were voted No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll — while Gardner and Walton dished behind-the-back passes on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college basketball preview — and Arizona held the No. 1 spot for 12 of the 18 weekly polls during the season.
The memory is still vivid for Murphy, who attended UA and served in various capacities for the Wildcats between 1998-2006.
“I think that year we came in here expecting to be No. 1,” Murphy said. “The guys embraced it. Luke and Jason had dealt with that in 2001 and had already been there. It was kind of old hat for them.
“It was my senior manager year. I had graduated in December of 2002 and stayed on the staff. We were ranked No. 1 (early) and lost at LSU when Luke was out (with a sprained ankle) and stayed back for graduation. (UA dropped to No. 4 after the loss).
“In January, we beat Kansas but came home and lost to Stanford on a Thursday (UA fell from No. 1 to No. 2). Then we only lost to Steve Lavin and UCLA in the Pac-10 Tournament (Lavin was fired after the tournament) and to Kansas in the Elite Eight.”
The Wildcats hadn’t been No. 1 since that NCAA tournament in 2003, until they regained the top spot earlier this month once North Carolina beat top-ranked Michigan State and the UA beat UNLV.
Now, Murphy has the chance to be on the other bench from a No. 1 team, and he’s telling NAU’s players what an opportunity that is.
“I told them (Friday) that you get maybe once in your lifetime for a chance like this,” Murphy said. “I said, ‘Even for those of you who are freshmen, you might play four years and not have this chance again.
“ ‘So you’ve gotta cherish that opportunity and go in there and play hard.’ ”