’Twas a 2019 to forget for Tucson sports.
Postseason-less campaigns for Arizona men’s basketball, football and baseball. A former No. 1 pick and local favorite shamed, a potential Heisman candidate bottled up.
Tucson needs a better 2020.
Does 2020 have better things in store for it? Will the ’20s begin with the Wildcats roaring, or will Tucson be in for another bad year?
Here’s what Tucsonans are hoping for in the new year:
UA women carry nonconference success into the new year
The Arizona women’s basketball team isn’t just off to the best start in program history; Adia Barnes has resuscitated the program. Can the Wildcats continue their success into the Pac-12 and on to the postseason? Their nonconference play wasn’t just good, it was astounding: a program-best No. 18 ranking, the best defense in the country and the fourth-highest scoring margin in the country.
The Wildcats have been so good, it’s important to remember they haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005. After a championship in the NIT Tournament last season, a March Madness bid would be nice. Anything more would be gravy.
Wildcats make March Madness memorable once more
The Arizona men’s basketball program enters the new year on a downswing, losing three of its last four, but the Wildcats have the freshman firepower to make a memorable March Madness run.
Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion and Josh Green have combined to average 44.2 points per game, and all three have shown they can go off at any time.
A March run seems inevitable.
Sumlin summons a new scheme and Cats go bowling
Something is amiss with Kevin Sumlin’s offense. The man who led Johnny Manziel to college football’s mountaintop simply never figured out Khalil Tate, leaving the one-time Swiss army knife without the blade and the screwdriver.
What can fans hope for next year? If Arizona’s new defensive coaches can cut opposing production by a fourth, the Wildcats would go bowling for the first time under Sumlin.
Softball heads to OKC for second straight year
Arizona’s softball team advanced to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2010, an unprecedented famine for one of the best programs in the land. In losing senior first-team All-American Taylor McQuillin and Team USA-bound catcher Dejah Mulipola, you might wonder how UA could make it back to Oklahoma City for a second straight year.
Start with a senior class packed with talent as Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Malia Martinez, Jessie Harper, Reyna Carranco and Alyssa Denham.
“I think it will definitely be a great positive for the kids coming back in our program that have been able to feel this and understand what the stage is all about,” Candrea told the Star in June.
Then add the fact that Candrea signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in 2020. If he can find ways to test them early, another late-season run could be in the offing.
Arizona Bowl gets a taste of the MACtion
The Arizona Bowl will kick off the next phase of its expansion in 2020 as the stalwart Mountain West Conference will square up with new tie-in partner, the Mid-American Conference.
Much like #Pac12AfterDark, the MAC has gained a reputation as a high-flying free-for-all, and the bowl game will have its pick of a top-tier team. The game’s affiliation with the Sun Bowl will officially come to an end.
“This game was a priority as we looked to add a bowl to our lineup,” MAC Commissioner Jon A. Steinbrecher said when the tie-in was announced in June. “The opportunity to play in a destination such as Tucson and compete against the Mountain West Conference made this very attractive. In just a few short years through the efforts of a talented bowl staff and an engaged board, the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl has quickly developed a reputation for providing a quality experience for the participating teams and fans.”
Mr. Robinson gets a national audience
It’s not like Bijan Robinson has been a kept a secret in Tucson. The Salpointe Catholic High School running back broke countless tackles and records in a scintillating four-year career for the Lancers, but now he gets an even grander showcase.
Could Robinson become the next great Texas running back?
He’ll join a Longhorns lineage that includes some of the best running backs in college football history. He also joins a crowded backfield in Austin, but as the program’s first five-star running back in ages, he should get the rock early and often in his career.
UA baseball returns to postseason play
When Jay Johnson took over the Arizona baseball program, he made such a splash in his first season — the Wildcats finished one win short of the College World Series championship — that expectations were sky-high. But the Wildcats have watched their win total dwindle the last three years.
Can the addition of a great recruiting class turn things around?
Johnson is a terrific tactician, so perhaps an infusion of new blood will lift the Wildcats back into the postseason for the first time in three years.
Roadrunners finish what they’ve started
The Tucson Roadrunners have sprinted out of the gate. The Roadrunners are off to a 24-7 start, a .774 mark that ranks as the best in the AHL. A year after failing to qualify for the playoffs, the Roadrunners have their eyes set on the Calder Cup finals.
At the very least, Tucson is aiming to recapture the mojo it had in 2017-18, when the team scored a 3-1 first-round playoff series win over San Jose.
The parent Arizona Coyotes would like to tap into some of Tucson’s talent come the stretch run, but the Roadrunners are capable of a nice playoff push.