Greg Hansen: As Zags sag, Cats putting it together

2013-03-25T00:00:00Z 2013-03-27T09:23:35Z Greg Hansen: As Zags sag, Cats putting it togetherGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

SALT LAKE CITY

The public address announcer had to shout to be heard over the din inside Seattle's KeyArena.

"The scoreboard is correct!" he bellowed in a mocking tone. "Gonzaga 14, Arizona nothing."

The Zags stretched their lead to 22-4 and little that Sean Miller tried was working. Arizona's coach made 47 substitutions, about double his typical game pattern.

It only got worse.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few's unconventional strategy was tantamount to saying "you're no good."

As Arizona shot brick upon brick, missing 10 of its first 11 shots, Zags defensive players backed off. Let 'em shoot. Desperate, Miller inserted seldom-used center Kyryl Natyazhko and let him play 20 minutes.

"In many ways," Miller said after the Zags rushed to a 34-15 lead and won 71-60, "Gonzaga chose for those shots to be wide open."

That was 15 months ago. Arizona was so far out of Gonzaga's league that Miller admitted he envied the Zags' seventh man, backup forward Sam Dower. 'I'd love to have him," he said.

So you might imagine the juxtaposition, the irony, when Miller and his son sat on press row early in Saturday's Gonzaga-Wichita State game. Miller's red-hot-and-rolling team had already advanced to the Sweet 16, forcing its opponent, Harvard, to miss its first 13 shots.

Few's team would soon leave the arena shattered and in tears.

After that made-for-TV game in Seattle, a few days before Christmas, 2011, Few did his best to cover for Arizona's struggles and to protect a coaching colleague, as if he pitied the Wildcats.

"It takes about six years to turn a program around," he said. "Sean's way ahead of that pace."

There is no longer a clock on the reconstruction project at Arizona. There is no longer a reconstruction project. The Wildcats pulled even with and passed the Zags late Saturday night.

Sam Dower? He'd merely challenge Angelo Chol for playing time on the rebuilt Arizona bench.

This isn't to suggest that the Wildcats will take down Ohio State in Thursday's Sweet 16. That's the final level up in college basketball, a step above where Gonzaga has resided for the last dozen years.

But that is Arizona's ultimate destination. Whether the Wildcats get there this week, or next year, it seems inevitable.

After beating up on the Wildcats 15 months ago, Gonzaga entered the '12-13 season more mature but otherwise virtually the same team. The only real difference was 7-footer Kelly Olynyk replacing 7-footer Robert Sacre, who now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Gonzaga has been bumping against a basketball ceiling for what seems forever.

Do you realize that the Zags, who rose to No. 1 entering the NCAA tournament, have qualified for just a pair of Sweet 16s dating to 2002?

Miller has matched that in four Arizona seasons.

Arizona didn't get lucky in Salt Lake City any more than it got lucky in March of 1997 when it opened with a couple of alleged lightweights, 13th-seeded South Alabama and 12th-seeded College of Charleston. Arizona survived two harrowing finishes against woefully under-rated clubs before advancing to beat No. 1 Kansas and ultimately winning the national championship.

Year upon year, Arizona never seemed to get a break in the NCAA tournament. So a Belmont-Harvard doubleheader was almost a payback from the NCAA gods. To show its appreciation, or worthiness, Arizona responded by performing the way an authentic Sweet 16 team would.

In most ways, win or lose against the Buckeyes, the future starts now for Miller and his basketball team.

In that painful loss at Gonzaga last season, Miller began talking about "death by inches," which was never more apparent than in his club's nightmare matchup with the size-blessed Zags.

Now, 15 months later, Arizona has all the inches necessary; it became deeper and taller than Gonzaga, and this is just the beginning.

Freshman big men Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski have played a cumulative 2,000 minutes. They're not stars, not yet, but check back next March and in March 2015.

"They have developed about the way we thought they would," said UA assistant coach James Whitford. "From 1988, Lute Olson put 32 players in the NBA. How many were one-and-done? One: Jerryd Bayless.

"In our eyes, Grant, Brandon and Kaleb are developing at a good and natural pace. One day you'll look up and say 'these guys are very good.'"

One day soon.

Against Ohio State, Arizona will likely go as far as seniors Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons can take it. But it's not a now-or-never scenario.

"We begin to build our own tradition," Miller said Saturday, careful to connect his success to the foundation inherited from Olson. "If you think about the legacy and the tradition, and the pressure, that's why you want to be at Arizona - so that you can go for it all."

Think Gonzaga would like to trade places now?

Contact Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711.

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

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