Hansen's Sunday Notebook: Thriving, expanding Wildcat Country annexes Sin City

In this week's edition, Greg Hansen dishes on the amazing turnout of Arizona fans in Las Vegas at the Pac-12 tournament, a pair of Tucson sports greats remembered, Craig McMillan's place in life, former football Cats coaching in the Pac-12 and Greg Byrne's star growing ever brighter.

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  • The vast corridors of the MGM Grand are a mob scene. You can’t possibly get from Point A to Point B swiftly because you are blocked, gridlock, by people in red Arizona gear.

    It is the same at 10 a.m. as it is at 10  p.m. Red everywhere. It is a celebration of Arizona basketball. It is what you would imagine if Arizona ever goes to the Rose Bowl.

    “I’ve seen this before, it’s the type of culture you see in the SEC,” said Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, formerly AD at Mississippi State and an assistant AD at Kentucky.

    “In the SEC it was always Big Blue Country, whether it was in Nashville or Atlanta. Kentucky basketball took over every SEC basketball tournament. Now it’s the Red invasion in the Pac-12.”

    For three days, Las Vegas Boulevard, the legendary Strip, is a piece of Arizona Wildcats property.

    At 10:30 Thursday morning, I tried with little success to walk through several thousand Arizona fans to the media entry at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. It was 90 minutes before tipoff. A five-minute walk took 25 minutes. They arrive early and stay late.

    Arizona sold its official allotment of 1,783 tickets, but a good estimate is that 8,000 UA fans were on site every day. Most of them are those who are not part of the 14,535 at McKale Center in the regular season.

    It is a time during which they feel like winners themselves, an identity created and shared by Lute Olson 25 years ago.

    In the decade the Pac-12 played its basketball tournament at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, there was no hub, no real rallying point. It was expensive and a logistical challenge. The atmosphere inside Staples was often dull.

    There is no dull at the MGM Grand.

    Las Vegas is not inexpensive in any form, but it is Party Central. I’m not sure the other Pac-12 schools, especially those in the Bay Area and the Northwest, enjoy the Arizona advantage, but the money generated in Las Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. It is shared by all 12 schools.

    “Whenever I leave my room and go downstairs, it’s crazy, no matter what time it is,” said UA guard Gabe York. “It’s like, ‘Is everybody in Tucson here?’ It seems like it.”

  • Two of the most notable sports figures in Tucson history died last week in Southern California.

    Bobby “The General’’ Thompson, the UA’s franchise running back of 1960-61, probably one of the four or five leading backs in school history, died of leukemia Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 74.

    Tony Morales, a schoolboy legend in Douglas, former UA baseball standout and coach of five Tucson High teams to reach the state championship basketball game, died in Hemet, Calif. He was 89. Services have not been scheduled for either.

    Thompson was a big-play halfback among big-play halfbacks, leading UA to an 8-1-1 record in 1961 and 15-4-1 in his two seasons before becoming an NFL cornerback and return man. He played for the Lions from 1964 to 1968 and the Saints in 1969.

    Morales coached the Badgers to state titles in 1962 and 1969, deploying the best big man in Tucson history, Ray Kosanke, to a 21-0 record in ’62, and finishing 23-1 in ’69 behind Delano PriceKenny Ball and Wallace “Hoegie” Simmons.

  • I wrote last Sunday about the few high school ballplayers from Tucson who went on to score 1,000 or more in college basketball. My research was incomplete; I was unable to track scoring records from the Big Sky Conference, Ivy League and West Coast Conference. So here’s an updated list, through Friday, with apologies to three former NAU Lumberjacks, Stevie WilliamsDave Henson and Jeff Altman, and to Yale’s Emerson Whitley and St. Mary’s David Vann:

    PlayerHigh schoolCollegeNCAA points
    Sean ElliottChollaArizona2,555
    Bryce CottonPalo VerdeProvidence1,918
    David VannTucsonSt. Mary’s1,738
    Dave FeitlSanta RitaTEP1,442
    Justin DeBerrySalpointeLafayette1,378
    Ernie McCrayTucsonArizona1,349
    Stevie WilliamsSahuaroNAU1,341
    Dave HensonSahuaroNAU1,174
    Fat LeverPuebloASU1,137
    Sean FlannerySalpointeSan Diego1,101
    Emerson WhitleyAmphiYale1,099
    Jeff AltmanRinconNAU1,089
    Terrell StoglinSanta RitaMaryland1,072
    Roger JohnsonTucsonArizona1,046
  • After coaching for Kevin O’Neill at Marquette and Tennessee, and becoming a pro head coach in the Middle East, Arizona’s 1988 Final Four off-guard Craig McMillan went home and discovered his bliss. He coached his hometown Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College team to the California Final Four, which is ongoing this weekend. McMillan took a 298-145 record into championship weekend. His SRJC team is the only California junior college to reach the Elite Eight in state playoffs the last three seasons.

  • As for O’Neill, he, too, has found his calling and it’s not as a combative, combustible coach. His analysis work on the Pac-12 Networks this season has been insightful and provocative. He dares to tell it like it is. Hope he doesn’t self-destruct in this role. 

  • Sunnyside sophomore Jacob Inclan and Ironwood Ridge sophomore Mitch Lightfoot are the only Tucson players invited to the annual Arizona Basketball Coaches Association Underclassman All-Star game May 17 in Mesa. Sunnyside’s Rob Harrison will coach the team. Well deserved. 

  • One of the all-time success stories in college athletics as it relates to Arizona is the hiring of Mark Harlan as the athletic director at South Florida last week. Harland arrived at Arizona in 1987 as a student manager for Dick Tomey’s football team. Harlan ultimately became an assistant AD/administrator at Northern Colorado, San Jose State and Arizona, and for the past four years has been the No. 2 man in the UCLA athletic department.

  • With the hiring of Duane Akina as Stanford’s secondary coach last week, the Pac-12 now has a full staff of ex-Arizona assistant coaches operating in other uniforms. Joe Salave’a is at Washington State; Pete Alamar is with Akina at Stanford; Mike Tuiasosopo is at UCLA; Gary Bernardi is at Colorado; and Garret Chachere is at Cal, where he works for head coach Sonny Dykes. Stanford’s acquisition of Akina is possibly the top coaching switch in the Pac-12 this offseason.

  • Former CDO shortstop Mattie Fowler underwent a second ACL surgery and will not play for Nebraska again this season. She can apply for a fifth-year medical hardship and play in 2015, but she is scheduled to graduate in May and has an option of attending law school. Fowler was Arizona’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2011.

  • It now appears as if Matt Scott will get a chance to contend for the Jacksonville Jaguars starting QB job, or at least the No. 2 job. The Jags traded Blaine Gabbert to San Francisco last week. Scott spent the entire 2013 season on the Jags’ practice squad after emerging as a star-level player at Arizona under Rich Rodriguez

  • Nick Francona was born in Tucson, the son of Terry Francona, Arizona’s 1980 NCAA baseball Player of the Year. He moved with his family as his father became manager in Philadelphia and graduated from the Wharton School of business after earning a degree at Penn. Nick was rifleman in the Marines, serving in Afghanistan. Now he’s in baseball, hoping someday to be a GM, starting in an entry-level job as the Los Angeles Angels coordinator of player data. 

  • Former UA basketball player Daniel Bejarano, who averaged 16.3 points this year at Colorado State, ended his junior season (unless the Rams get an NIT berth) shooting 2 for 17 afield in a Mountain West Conference elimination game to Utah State. Worse, Bejarano was assessed a technical foul for taunting that led to a four-point swing in the final minute. Not good for a fourth-year junior to lose his composure in such a big moment. 

  • Sunnyside grad Stefen Romero’s bid to make the Seattle Mariners roster appears stalled in spring training. Romero was hitting .258 in 13 starts through Friday; he is projected to return to Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League.

  • For the first time since he left Arizona in December 2010, Jim Livengood attended a UA athletic event, sitting courtside with Tucson attorney Burt Kinerk and their wives at Friday’s UA-Colorado game in Las Vegas. Given time to reflect on Livengood’s 15 seasons at Arizona, he will be remembered far more than for the man who hired Sean Miller away from Xavier. Livengood kept the books balanced, insisted on character and integrity and handed off a respected program that more than held its own in the Pac-12. Livengood has a home in Tucson but continues to live in Las Vegas, from where he operates as a consultant to various college athletic departments. 

  • In her six seasons as Arizona’s women’s basketball coach, Niya Butts is 28-80 in the Pac-12. How’s that? It’s last. Oregon is 31-77, Washington State is 33-75. The UA athletic department last week confirmed Butts will get a chance to coach her seventh year in 2014-15 and also has guaranteed money for the 2015-16 season. Does it really matter? Do you know who coaches women’s basketball at Kentucky? Gonzaga? Is Florida’s women’s basketball program good? Oregon released its women’s coach, Paul Westhead, last week. It had been paying him $675,000 a year and retained him after going 2-16 in the Pac-12 a year ago. 

  • Here’s a name to remember: Tempe Corona del Sol point guard Alex Barcello. Starting as a freshman, he helped his team win the Division I state title last month and is seen as The Next Big Thing in Arizona prep hoops. Miller has been in the gym to watch him. This summer, Barcello is scheduled to play for the AAU Compton Magic, which will be funded and operated by ex-Wildcat Jerryd Bayless. The beat goes on.

  • Sooner or later, Arizona AD Greg Byrne is going to be the target of a hiring search to either be an athletic director at a top 10 program, or as a conference commissioner or something similar.

    His name became one of the first mentioned when West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich left the WCC last week to become Larry Scott’s deputy commissioner in the Pac-12.

    Don’t expect Byrne to bite, or return any interest shown by the WCC.

    “I like cheering for one team,” he said Friday, speaking generically and not about the WCC opening. “I like working with the kids day-to-day. I don’t know if you can get the same fulfillment as a commissioner.”

    Byrne is just completing his fourth season at Arizona. He has set a tireless pace that few ADs can, or are willing to match.

    People are watching. This won’t be the last time his name pops up on the job market.

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