Arizona's Mark Lyons tosses the ball up to the basket while USC's Aaron Fuller closes in during the first half of the Wildcats' loss at Galen Center in Los Angeles. Lyons managed 14 points despite going 1 of 9 from the field.


ANAHEIM, Calif. - Pain has a way of blurring perspective after an NCAA tournament loss, and in some ways, it may have been worse for the Arizona Wildcats this time.

Sure, they were ahead of schedule, playing with house money in an Elite Eight game during a season when they were supposed to be a fringe NCAA tournament team at best.

But some teams play looser and better in the tournament when they're ahead of schedule - the 1997 NCAA champion Wildcats are just one example - and the path to the Final Four was opening up this year, too.

Top overall seed Ohio State lost. Butler reached the Final Four. Despite losing to VCU Sunday, Kansas was maybe the best team entering the Elite Eight and it was the same group that Arizona played well against way back in November, when the Wildcats weren't even close to maturity.

Besides, Derrick Williams was pulling tricks left and right, and since he probably won't be back, maybe the time was … now?

"You never know," Solomon Hill said. "You feel we could probably have gone all the way."

That's why it hurts.

"It's just kind of sad to come back to Tucson with a loss," center Kyryl Natyazhko said. "You could say we overachieved, but to us it was something we could do. It's just a tough loss right now. It feels terrible."

So in order to get past the pain and properly define the Wildcats' second season under Sean Miller, maybe you have to step back in time a bit. Miller did so earlier this month:

"If I would have told you the very first time we got together in October that we'd be playing Oregon State and Oregon for the Pac-10 title and our 24th and 25th wins were possible - you'd say 'Wow, a lot would have to go right for you guys,' " Miller said during the final week of the regular season. "And a lot has gone right for us."

A lot continued to go right after he said those words.

Except for late defensive slip-ups that helped give Washington the Pac-10 tournament title in overtime, and except for early foul trouble that hamstrung Williams on Saturday, the Wildcats enjoyed a charmed March existence.

They celebrated their first Pac-10 regular-season title in six years by snipping down the nets at McKale Center. They won two Pac-10 tournament games.

Then, in the NCAA tournament, Williams blocked a shot to beat Memphis in their first game. Williams made a three-point play to beat Texas in the second game. Finally, Williams played the best half of his season before halftime against Duke in the Sweet 16, and his teammates repaid the debt with the best half of their season after halftime.

After three years of college experience, Brendon Lavender found some perspective in all that.

"Right now we're hurting, but it's a momentary thing," he said after the game. "We made history, you know what I'm saying? We're going in a really good direction."

It's a direction they started, really, exactly one year ago, spending a rare spring break at home after failing to even make the NIT, then going to work.

"It was very different circumstances when you don't make the tournament and nobody's congratulating you," Miller said. "That really catapulted us into having a great summer and into the fall. A lot of our success really stemmed with not getting too far ahead of ourselves and really cemented in on those things. It takes a lot to get things right during those nine months when you're not playing. But this past off-season was really a great thing for us."

Once the season began, it become about continuing to improve and staying consistent, and the Wildcats succeeded there, too. Arizona lost only one game it was widely expected to win, a Jan. 2 heartbreaker at Oregon State after the Wildcats unhappily spent a long New Year's weekend in a quiet Corvallis hotel.

Miller said depth helped keep the Wildcats steady, giving him the ability to sub out any underperforming player at virtually any time. And all of the Wildcats' 10 rotation players, at one time or another, made a difference in victories. Among them: Junior college transfer Jesse Perry, who slipped into the starting lineup in December, and Natyazhko, who played the best of his career during the final month of the season.

But that 10-man rotation also required careful handling, keeping not only the players but also those around them happy when they could have found more playing time almost anywhere else.

"It's hard to play 10 players, 11 at times," Miller said earlier this month. "Believe me when I tell you we have great chemistry but you have no idea the number of issues that can arise. Everybody wants to play more.

"To guide that through the course of a season is not easy, and it takes a lot of conversations, a lot of meetings, and keeping these players focused on one thing, and that is winning. … Everybody sacrificed."

The meetings continued virtually all season, and none of them may have been more pivotal than when Miller kept the Wildcats in the locker room for a season-high 35 minutes after a dispiriting 71-49 loss at UCLA on Feb. 26.

Exactly a month later, the Wildcats were three points away from the Final Four.

They can't complain about that, can they?

"It was the way we all came together," Hill said. Almost "everybody in the locker room went 16-15 last year. So just to see how we came together and go to the Elite Eight … I wouldn't trade anything for that."

Just like the old days

The Arizona Wildcats rebuilt a series of bridges this season over their transition years from the Lute Olson era.

Among them:

• First Pac-10 regular-season title since 2005

• First NCAA Elite Eight since 2005

• First 30-win season since 2005

• First Pac-10 Player and Coach of Year tandem (Derrick Williams, Sean Miller) since 1998

• First undefeated home season since 1999

• First Top 10 appearance in major polls since 2007

• First win over Duke since 1991