When I was a kid and the Yankees were at the end of a 40-year run, my dad packed four kids into an old Pontiac and drove us 500 miles to watch what was left of the crumbling dynasty.
It was the summer of 1966. The Yankees finished dead last, 10th in the American League, 26½ games out of first place. In one of the games at old Angel Stadium, Mickey Mantle, his legs giving out, was moved to first base.
I couldn’t conceive of a happy life without the Yankees in first place.
That’s the best I’ve got when it comes to putting perspective on what’s happening to Arizona’s basketball team. College basketball isn’t always about happy endings, either.
When the Wildcats lost to Colorado 67-60 Sunday at the CU Events Center, I was thinking of Mickey limping off the field, surrounded by a lineup of fill-ins like Horace Clarke and Dooley Womack.
For a minute, it was 1966 again, when Angels fans hooted and hollered as the Yankees stumbled to another loss. On Sunday, the 7,899 Buffaloes fans hardy enough to show up on a night it was 15 degrees and snowing, didn’t care who wore Arizona uniforms. The CU fans stood and roared every time the Buffaloes expanded their lead.
Leading 59-49 with six minutes remaining, CU’s pep band sang “We’re not gonna take it anymore.”
“There was a big difference (in Arizona) from last year to this year,” said CU forward Lucas Siewert, who scored a team-high 15 points. “Maybe they’re not as good as they used to be, I don’t know, I don’t try to focus on that.”
In its first six visits to Coors Events Center, Arizona had a composite record of 102-16 on game day. That’s a 20-3 average. No wonder it is considered a Really Big Thing when CU beats Arizona.
But this time, when the Wildcats left on a late-night charter flight to Tucson, they were 14-12. That’s Arizona’s worst record through 26 games since Sean Miller’s first season, when the UA lost to ASU at McKale Center to go 13-13.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: This stuff doesn’t last with powerhouse teams.
The Yankees were back to their old selves in the 1970s, and if all goes well and the creek don’t rise, the Wildcats should return to Colorado next winter in the familiar role of bully.
Remember this: A year ago, UA forward Ryan Luther played for a Pitt team that went a hopeless 0-18 in the ACC. This year Pitt is ranked 81st in the Kenpom standings. That’s a few spots ahead of No. 86 Arizona.
Colorado coach Tad Boyle didn’t modify his postgame remarks to say that this isn’t your typical Arizona team. Boyle did anything but that.
“This was another great victory by the Buffaloes,” he said. “I just want to say that Arizona played well, they are a good team. They played well tonight; we took their best shot.”
And maybe he’s right.
As the Wildcats did in last week’s loss at Utah, they seemed to get the most out of their ability for 30 or 32 minutes. On Sunday, Arizona stretched that to 35 minutes.
But ultimately, the UA’s lack of manpower, size and strength becomes too much to overcome on the road. Getting to the finish line has become a road too far.
That may change when Arizona gets home. Given the recent dogged nature of Sean Miller’s reconstructed lineup, it gives hope that the Wildcats may win a game or two in Tucson, maybe against Cal and Arizona State, before moving on to a more optimistic future.
I mean, Colorado has come back from 2-6 start in the Pac-12 to win five consecutive games, putting the Buffaloes in the hunt for a bye at the Pac-12 Tournament.
I’m not sure the Buffaloes have any all-conference players, but they are making the most of what they have.
One thing for sure, it wasn’t difficult for Boyle to get his team psyched to play the Wildcats.
“This is an important game for us,” he said. “The reason Arizona has become a rival is because they’re one of the best teams consistently in our league. I want our players and our fans to expect to compete with these guys. I’d like to beat them down at McKale — we haven’t won down there, technically — and we’ve got to get that one off the list.”
But that’s a story for another day.
One telling difference Sunday was that CU fans did not rush the court, dance and sing late into the night after beating Arizona. After 40 minutes, even long-suffering Buffaloes fans who haven’t seen their team win a conference championship since 1969 understood that they had not chopped down a giant they way they did in 2013, 2016 and 2018 games against Arizona.
You don’t need to have great knowledge of college basketball to understand that the team you just beat has lost seven consecutive games and is firmly in 10th place.
Just like my ’66 Yankees.