It’s almost impossible to access McKale Center without encountering an “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” warning at the UA’s softball, swimming and football facilities.
There is no such sign at McKale, but that’s the inevitable perception for the first time in a long time.
This may sound familiar.
Houston Baptist played the season opener at McKale Center in November 1984 and the Huskies saw an Arizona team so untried and vulnerable that the UA could’ve installed a HARD HATS REQUIRED sign at the arena’s entrance.
The Wildcats struggled to win, 63-56, after which second-year coach Lute Olson said “we couldn’t have beaten this team last year.”
Houston Baptist? Really?
Wednesday, the Huskies returned to McKale for the first time in 34 years and they again discovered that McKale is the site of some worrisome construction. Bring your hard hats.
Sean Miller deployed an all-new starting lineup against Houston Baptist; it was the first time since 1971-72 that an Arizona basketball team has not returned a full-time starter.
That can’t be good.
The Wildcats won 90-60. Winning was one of the few givens on opening night. Houston Baptist hasn’t ever defeated a Power 5 conference basketball school. It is 0-35.
“In the first half, we didn’t have a great deal of confidence, and that’s kind of who we are right now,” said Miller. “Our hope is that as we continue to work and practice, and go through some experiences together, we will continue to improve”
That’s the kind of early-season summation you usually hear from a coach at Colorado State or Santa Clara, not Arizona.
This in-transition UA team is as unconvincing as Olson’s ’84-85 team, and it begs the legitimate question: What program, then or now, was in a better/worse place?
A year ago Arizona opened the season ranked No. 3 in the AP preseason poll. Now, because standards have changed, it draws comparison’s to a long-ago UA team that was coming off five consecutive losing seasons, with three head coaches in three seasons, as McKale Center attendance dropped to a record low 6,234 the year before Olson added Houston Baptist as the home opener.
Which team was better positioned for the future? Today’s Wildcats, who recently recruited two 5-star guards? Or the ’84-85 team, whose leading player was today’s version of a 2-star recruit: 6-foot 5-inch junior college center Pete Williams?
It’s no contest.
Olson built from years of accumulated basketball rubble, starting over. There were no quick fixes in the 1980s.
Now college basketball is a game of transfers, one-year wonders and overnight successes. There is no longer an extended feeling of hopelessness unless, say, you’re a fan of Washington State.
Miller has produced Top 10 teams while simultaneously introducing I’m-just-passing-through-town superstars.
Building a college basketball team at Arizona’s level now has a fast-serve, drive-thru lane. UA fans might wish to keep that in mind as the Wildcats struggle with a lack of size, depth and experience.
Now if you sign a Nico Mannion or Josh Green — both much higher ranked than Sean Elliott in 1984 — you get back on Jay Bilas’ team-to-watch list in months, not years.
That inauspicious beginning — that 1984 opening night victory over Houston Baptist — was Arizona’s foundation for 25 years of excellence.
And that’s why there’s no comparison to the reconstruction of Arizona basketball in 1984 to the starting-over status of the Wildcats today. As good as he was, Elliott didn’t play on a team to win an NCAA Tournament game until his junior season.
Miller inherited a national brand and global recruiting platform. He did not have to do the architecture work, as Olson did, building a fan base that remains so loyal that 25,289 people paid to attend recent practice games Western New Mexico and Chaminade.
The significant difference is that Olson had Elliott for four seasons, Steve Kerr for five. Olson thrived on the stability of an earlier era of college hoops. Miller’s career has crossed into the one-and-done juggle.
The biggest challenge to this UA basketball season may be that there is no closure to the FBI investigation into college basketball. The April trial of former UA assistant coach Book Richardson has become more suspenseful than March’s Selection Sunday.
But on Wednesday night, the Wildcats displayed enough skill that will almost surely lead to eight consecutive nonconference home victories against a slew of schools such as Cal Poly and Utah Valley.
If you can open the year with eight victories in the bank, you can at least buy some time to worry about beating Oregon and Arizona State another day.