Arizona was an average team in an average league in 2015-16
I departed the Dunkin’ Donuts Center at 1:45 a.m. Friday and walked a few blocks to a downtown Providence, Rhode Island, hotel. On the way, I passed Murphy’s Irish pub.
Last call? The doors were locked.
A few hours earlier, on my walk to the Arizona-Wichita State game, the streets and sidewalks were almost impassable. The sun was out and the St. Patrick’s Day party was like nothing you ever see in Tucson.
Hope was in the air; anything was possible.
But in the wee hours Friday morning, only a few stragglers remained at Murphy’s. The streets were littered with empty green beer cups. It was raining. The party was over.
It was, I thought, a symbolic end to Arizona’s basketball season.
This is what I learned:
1. If you run your finger down Arizona’s roster, you do not, as in most seasons, tell yourself “we’re really going to miss that guy.” Best example: Ryan Anderson. His production diminished so significantly down the stretch that he was, for a time, benched for lack of effort. He scored eight points against Wichita State and six against Oregon in his last two games. Every player in the UA rotation is replaceable, and when was the last time you said that?
2. Bill Walton, Larry Scott, Sean Miller and a chorus of voices inside the Pac-12 declared this was the league’s best season in (a) forever or (b) a long, long time.
Nuts. In 1997, the league won 13 NCAA Tournament games. Arizona won the national title, UCLA reached the Elite Eight, Stanford and Cal fought on to the Sweet 16. In 2001, the league won 13 NCAA Tournament games. Arizona played for the national title, USC and Stanford reached the Elite Eight and UCLA got to the Sweet 16.
The old Pac-10 was better in 2002, 2003 and through the mid-1990s, when Stanford, Arizona and UCLA were consistent national powers. Nothing like that now.
This year’s Pac-12 has a handful of fairly good teams who set a league record (2-5) for first-round exits. All of that buildup was quickly torn down.
3. Arizona is not what it used to be. In the last 15 years, the Wildcats are 22-13 in the NCAA Tournament, with no Final Fours. In the previous 15 years (1987-2001), Arizona was 30-14 with four Final Fours. But it’s close. One Final Four will make the aftertaste of losing to Wichita State and Wisconsin vanish.
4. Wichita State met the same fate of those teams that earlier shocked Arizona in first-round games — East Tennessee State in 1992, Santa Clara in 1993 and Miami of Ohio in 1995. All lost the next game.
5. Incredibly, Arizona has been whipped/blown out just three times in its last 80 NCAA Tournament games, which includes Thursday’s loss to Wichita State. The hangover didn’t last long.
In 2002, Oklahoma routed Arizona 88-67 in the Sweet 16. A year later, Arizona went 28-4, won the Pac-10 and reached the Elite Eight.
In 2009, Louisville humbled Arizona 103-64 in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats hired Miller a month later and were 30-8, an Elite Eight team, two years later.
Oregon is now the team to beat in Pac-12 hoops, but by St. Patrick’s Day, 2017, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Arizona, USC, UCLA or Washington at the top.