A Season to Remember

'Cats win Pac-12 Conference, Tournament and reach Sweet 16

Tom Danehy, Jacob Chinn photo illustration

It is no surprise that it happened in The City of Neon Light, the destination where fantasy is a commodity and dreams go to die … except on those rare occasions when they don’t. In a tour de force of basketball grit and style, of passion and determination, the Arizona Wildcats won the Pac-12 Tournament championship and headed into the NCAA Tournament with a full head of steam.

It was a dream ending to the Las Vegas gathering (otherwise known as McKale North) that had been hinted at a couple times during the regular season, but every time those hints began to take on a collective form they were obliterated — first by a serious beating at Oregon and then, late in the year, by a stunning loss at home to UCLA. 

Arizona, which is officially the regular-season Pac-12 co-champion, had to settle for the second seed going into the Pac-12 Tournament, which meant that the ’Cats would face tough competitors on three consecutive nights: Colorado, a serious tourney nemesis of Arizona’s in recent years; UCLA, which had stunned the ’Cats just a couple weeks earlier, breaking a long McKale winning streak for the home team; and Oregon, which had two inexplicable losses on its record but had manhandled the ’Cats in their only meeting in the regular season. 

It was shaping up to be the type of short run that would leave fans shrugging and saying, “Well, that was not as good as I had hoped but not as bad as I had feared.”

Arizona Athletics photo, Jacob Chinn photo

Instead, the Wildcats (and Pac-12 Coach of the Year Sean Miller) brought together off-the-charts freshman athleticism with calming upperclassman leadership to forge a powerful unit that made things look not exactly easy but, in the end, not completely surprising, either.

After getting past Colorado in the opener, Arizona faced UCLA. The Wildcats didn’t dominate the Bruins, but they controlled the game from start to finish. Finally, Arizona took on Oregon. 

Despite losing one of their top subs to injury, the Ducks were still a strong favorite in the title game. However, the ’Cats built a double-digit lead midway through the second half and then gathered themselves in the end for an 83-80 win and their second Pac-12 Tournament title in three years. 

In terms of sports science, it’s the mass of Rawle Alkins and Lauri Markkanen times the speed of Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen that equals some serious momentum heading into the Big Dance. 

Over the years, Arizona fans have seen it all. In what must be considered a second-tier blessing, their beloved Wildcats have gone to the NCAA Tournament so many times that, with the exception only of the championship game itself, the fans have experienced heartbreak at each round multiple times. 

For fans as well as for athletes, the higher one aims, the more painful it is when one falls short. Which is worse — that the ’Cats have lost in the first round 11 times, or that they have lost seven times in the game that could take them to the Final Four? And their last four losses in the Elite Eight have been by a total of seven points. It truly is the agony and the ecstasy. 

Considering the way the season started, it’s hard to imagine how the Wildcats got from there to here. First, forward Ray Smith suffered a soul-crushing, career-ending knee injury in the Red-Blue exhibition game. Then Allonzo Trier found himself trapped in some kind of NCAA Ineligibility Twilight Zone for 19 games. Throw in a serious lower-leg injury to Parker Jackson-Cartwright to make for a dismal stew of uncertainty.

In the early going, the ’Cats played, at best, OK. Too-close wins over Grand Canyon and Texas A&M were mixed with lackluster performances in losses to Gonzaga and Butler. Coach Miller tinkered with his rotation and eventually found a mix that worked. The ’Cats roared out to a 10-0 start in Pac-12 play before running into Oregon. During that run, Trier was finally cleared to play and exploded onto the scene with a stellar performance in the ’Cats’ impressive 
win at UCLA.  

It took a while to fully integrate Trier into the rotation and, eventually, the starting lineup. Some ugly wins followed, but by the start of the Vegas extravaganza, the ’Cats had figured things out. 

It is a testament to Miller, who is truly a coach for his time. In the old days, coaches had two or three (or even four) years to mold a unit. These days, that has been squeezed down to one year and even one misstep can be disastrous. 

Going into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed, the ’Cats had the coaching, the guard play, the big men, the bench and the fan base to go a long way. Unfortunately, they lost to Xavier in the Sweet 16. But, as the regular-season Pac-12 co-champions and owners of the Pac-12 Tournament title, it will forever be a season to cherish.