Greg Hansen: Olson's right: Play nobody, go nowhere

2012-03-12T00:01:00Z 2013-03-08T19:03:42Z Greg Hansen: Olson's right: Play nobody, go nowhereGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 12, 2012 12:01 am  • 

As Lute Olson walked into Staples Center early Saturday afternoon, he passed to within a few feet of where CBS analyst Reggie Miller was preparing for the Arizona-Colorado championship game.

The old Pac-10 adversaries didn't see each other, which was ironic in the sense that 25 years ago their paths crossed so often and with such emotion, that neither McKale Center nor Pauley Pavilion ever seemed big enough for both of them.

In 1986, Olson won the first of his 11 Pac-10 championships against Miller's UCLA Bruins, at Pauley, 48 hours after Miller said "we can't wait to play them."

That was one of many notable showdowns between Olson's Wildcats and Miller's Bruins, a rivalry that peaked on Selection Sunday 1987 when Miller said Arizona's inclusion into the field of 64 was a fraud.

"Their athletic director's on the selection committee," he said. "No wonder they got a home game."

Indeed, former UA director of athletics Cedric Dempsey was part of the selection committee in 1987 (he was chairman in 1988, when Arizona reached the Final Four).

But what makes the 25th anniversary of 1987's Selection Sunday pertinent today is that it was the last time an Olson team ever had to worry about being part of the Big Fiesta.

The '87 Wildcats were 18-11 in the regular season, bounced from the inaugural Pac-10 tournament in a miserable first-round game by the seventh-place Oregon Ducks. And yet somehow, 72 hours later, they not only were given a 10th seed, they were allowed to play at home, in McKale Center, against UTEP.

They lost anyway, 98-91, in overtime, and the NCAA that year abolished the practice of letting any team play on its home court.

Incredibly, for the next 16 years, Olson never had a Wildcat team that had to worry about being in the tournament on Selection Sunday. The UA was never worse than a No. 5 seed; on 12 occasions it was either No. 1, 2 or 3.

That streak is unlikely ever to be repeated at Arizona or in the Pac-12.

Here's how Olson did it: He was the boldest schedule-maker in the history of the league and surely one of the few coaches in college basketball history who never blinked at the caliber of opposition.

Arizona made that 1987 NCAA field because Olson scheduled No.4 Iowa, No. 5 UNLV, No. 9 Illinois and No. 13 Georgetown, their rankings on game day.

That was brought home again Sunday when former UConn director of athletics Jeff Hathaway, chairman of this year's selection committee, said, "The bottom line is 'who did you play?'"

Arizona has won 23 games but didn't have a chance on Sunday because its marquee non-conference home game was against Clemson (16-15) and because the only power teams on Arizona's schedule were San Diego State, Gonzaga and Florida.

And none of that group is an authentic head-turner or ratings-grabber.

In three seasons at Arizona, we have seen that Sean Miller is fearless; his teams play that way most of the time. As his program matures - Olson was in Year 4 at Arizona in 1987 - one suspects Miller will also engage the game's biggest names on a regular basis.

Hathaway's "who did you play?" tenet has never been more telling than it was Sunday.

Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington played neutral court games against Duke and Marquette, and engaged strong mid-majors such as St. Louis and Nevada, but otherwise the Huskies played the meek-and-mild: Cal-Northridge, Houston Baptist, Florida Atlantic and Portland.

Quietly, on Jan. 10, after conference play had started, the Huskies met small-school Seattle in a game that chipped away at their RPI. Not once did Washington play a name school in Seattle. It was a costly mistake.

Compare that to Long Beach State's daring schedule, one that might have gotten the 49ers into the field of 68 even if they hadn't won the Big West Conference championship.

Long Beach State opened the year by playing road games against Pitt, San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina. It played Xavier and Kansas State on a neutral court and later went to Creighton, an NCAA team.

No team in the Pac-12 played a non-conference schedule that approached the strength of the one played by Long Beach State. Amazing.

The Conference of Champions this year became the Conference of Chickens.

Olson long ago established the working formula for success in Pac-12 basketball: Play somebody whose name you can spell. Remember this: In 2002, Arizona played host to both UConn and Kansas in the same season. A decade earlier it scheduled home-and-home with Shaquille O'Neal and LSU.

Under Olson, Arizona played a four-game series with Duke; home-and-home with North Carolina, Syracuse and Michigan State; and arranged showdowns with (then) top-10 powers Oklahoma, Arkansas, Cincinnati and Texas.

On Selection Sunday, the Wildcats always were wired and waiting, never worried. All of that has changed. Now Arizona is in the NIT, and the game has changed.

So bring on Bucknell, right? You've gotta start somewhere.

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

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

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