A bit before noon Friday, Arizona’s basketball team began to stir at the Mandalay Bay resort. By then, scores of men planting trees and shrubs broke for lunch on the Toshiba Plaza, a $15 cab ride down the Las Vegas Strip.
A rotation of trucks loaded with asphalt turned off Tropicana Avenue to the entry of the T-Mobile Arena , where by this time next March, Arizona will get its next chance to win the Pac-12 tournament.
So many people were at work applying finishing touches to the $375 million arena that a parking garage at the adjacent New York-New York hotel was restricted, giving coveted first-and second-floor space strictly to construction workers.
Sean Miller’s basketball team is the sports equivalent of the T-Mobile Arena.
Arizona spent the year planting, paving and planning for the future. This season continues to be one in which the Wildcats pay off a debt for early NBA departures.
Just as the Pac-12 found a better facility at which to play its basketball championships through 2019, the Wildcats similarly expect to be better by March 2017.
Not that there is anything wrong with either the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which has been a fresh and dynamic host for the league’s once-lifeless basketball tournament. And, similarly, not that there’s much wrong with Miller’s 2015-16 basketball team.
The Wildcats have won 25 games. They’re really good. You don’t have to use much of an imagination to see how they could have won all 33 games; the eight losses were all that close. But Arizona has a chance to be much better next year, much like those trees planted Friday at the T-Mobile Arena.
The seeds are in the ground.
The promise of better things to come won’t immediately help the Wildcats get over Friday’s 95-89 overtime loss to Oregon. Not because they lost, but because, improbably, of the way the UA let it get away.
“We’re 25-8, and I don’t say, ‘What’s wrong with us?’ ” Miller said late Friday night. “Nobody has to tell me what we do at Arizona, how high the bar is. But we’re OK, we’re part of the NCAA tournament, and the one thing I look at now are the programs who won’t be in this year’s NCAA Tournament. It’s mind-boggling.
“We have to replace half of our roster every year, and every once in a while you won’t be quite as good as you were a year ago, no matter how hard you try.”
But still, how many times do the basketball gods, or any gods in any sport, give you two foul shots in an end-game situation to beat a top-10 team and play for a league title?
“It happens,” said UA center Kaleb Tarczewski.
But not really. Usually the “it” that happened Friday only happens in the movies.
With 47 seconds remaining in overtime Friday, UA senior Mark Tollefsen stood at the foul line, this time in a defensive pose, as Oregon closed out the Wildcats with some late free throws.
Tollefsen looked at the scoreboard, closed his eyes and shook his head, the way you and I do it when we let something so valuable get away. It was like losing a winning lottery ticket.
He will be shaking his head the same way 10 years from now, 20 years from now, and even when he’s old and gray and his grandkids ask him if he ever made a shot to win a big game when he played college basketball at Arizona.
Tollefsen had attempted only two free throws since Feb. 2. The ball has never been in his hands when Arizona went into one of many end-game, make-or-break situations this year against Cal or USC or the Ducks.
Even in his first three seasons as a San Francisco Don, Tollefsen, a career 77 percent foul shooter, had never experienced anything like he did Friday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Dons were eliminated by Loyola-Marymount, BYU and Gonzaga in his three USF seasons.
They never went to the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT.
When Tollefsen missed the first of his two foul shots with 0.4 of a second on the clock, the moment passed. His place in UA basketball history will now be a footnote instead of a do-you-remember-the-night-Tollefsen-beat-the-Ducks exclamation.
Frankly, it was beyond belief that Tollefsen, and Arizona, were in that situation.
“We went 6 of 16 on the free-throw line in the second half, which obviously gave them a chance to come back,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman. “And they just hit some shots.”
The Ducks aren’t a superpower, not like those Mike Montgomery had at Stanford or Jim Harrick and Ben Howland had at UCLA. That’s why they won the Pac-12 with a 14-4 record instead of, say, 16-2 or 17-1.
Arizona has probably had 10 or 12 teams with superior personnel to this Oregon team, but the game has changed. Freshmen and sophomores get more minutes than ever. Building a superpower is much harder than it used to be.
“I felt like they were the better team, and the better team won, but if you really look at the game, for about 17½ minutes of the first half, we were in a one-point game,” Miller said. “And then they just punched it out, leading into halftime.”
“But to give yourself a chance to win, to never give up, to play every possession till the end. We had a free throw to win the game, which is amazing to think of.”
When Miller returns for the 2017 Pac-12 tournament, his roster is scheduled to include super-recruits Ray Smith, Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Lauri Markkanen, and a logjam of veterans such as Kadeem Allen, Allonzo Trier and now, emerging big man, Chance Comanche.
Arizona didn’t return from Las Vegas with a trophy, but it does leave with a promise that its future will be as anticipated as the opening of a $375 million basketball arena.