20 years of pain and pleasure
The peaks and valleys of being a Wildcat for life are best expressed by what has happened since the '97 championship
(Courtesy Arizona Athletics) Lute Olson celebrates with his team after Arizona beat Kentucky for the National Championship in 1997. The Wildcats knocked off three No. 1 seeds en route to the program's lone national championship.
This season marks the 20th anniversary of the iconic 1997 national championship Arizona basketball team. Many say that team alone truly ignited the brilliance of Arizona basketball as we know it now—and the high expectations that come along with it—even if the Wildcats did reach the Final Four years before that unforgettable squad.
The program from 1997 up to this point has had the same blue-blood pedigree, but a roller coaster of emotional moments are tied within the program's history as well. Here are the most significant moments of Arizona basketball up until this point.
2001: National championship loss vs. Duke
Arizona fans learned to forever hate Shane Battier and the Duke basketball program in general after the Wildcats fell to the Blue Devils in the national championship game, 82-72. This was the closest Arizona has gotten to winning a championship since the 1997 team. Consequently, this was also the first time the university had to deal with riots after a devastating basketball loss.
2005: Blowing a 15-point lead against Illinois in the Elite Eight
A team that was destined for greatness behind the leadership of Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, but couldn’t come to collect when it faced the No. 1 overall seed Illinois Fighting Illini in the Elite Eight.
There were less than four minutes left in the game and the Wildcats were up by 15 points and it appeared that Arizona was on its way to another trip to the Final Four, but everything that could’ve gone wrong, went wrong.
The Fighting Illini were led by backcourt Deron Williams and Dee Brown, and the duo led Illinois back into the game and sent it into overtime.
Illinois clawed its way back and won the game 90-89.
That loss will forever be known as the ultimate fallout of a team that was a few minutes away from potentially playing for a national championship, because who knows what could’ve happened in the Final Four?
2007-2009: The era no one really likes to talk about
Going into the 2007-2008 season, the Wildcats were expected to compete in the stacked Pac-12 Conference behind guard Jerryd Bayless, but Hall of Fame head coach Lute Olson took a leave of absence for personal reasons.
The interim head coach was Kevin O’Neill and he did just enough to get the Wildcats an NCAA Tournament birth, and left the program the following season.
Days before the next season started, Olson officially announced his retirement, leaving Russ Pennell as the interim head coach for the 2008-2009 season.
Olson is currently No. 10 on college basketball’s all-time wins list as a head coach. The 2009 season was magical, because all it took was for Chase Budinger’s face to get stepped on against Houston at home for the Wildcats to ignite a spark that paved the way for Arizona to reach the Sweet 16.
It was an odd two-year period, but turned out well in the long run.
2009-2010: Bittersweet season for Arizona
So, with Olson out of the picture, there had to be an heir to the Arizona basketball throne. Rick Pitino, Lon Kruger and even John Calipari were floated as potential candidates, but the one to bite the bait first was Sean Miller.
Miller came over from previously coaching Xavier University and knew it wasn’t going to be easy to wake up the beast that is Arizona basketball. Despite signing four of the top-100 recruits including Solomon Hill and Derrick Williams, the Wildcats missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 26 seasons, snapping the longest active streak.
2011: "The block" and beating Duke
Williams, a sophomore and the undisputed leader of the team, was also arguably the best player in college basketball at the time, amongst players like Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving.
One of Williams’ many shining moments that season was the white-out game against Washington that went down to the final shot, but Williams blocked Darnell Gant’s layup to seal the victory.
The next memorable moment that season was seeing an underdog Arizona team against a Duke squad that had Irving, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, that went into the locker room at halftime trailing, only to come out and blow the Blue Devils out of the water, 93-77.
2013-2015: Wisconsin was Arizona’s Kryptonite
The 2013-2014 season had Nick Johnson as the veteran leader sprinkled in with the freshman duo of Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, so Arizona was viewed as the team to beat come March.
Sure enough, the Wildcats ran into Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky and with forward Brandon Ashley out for the season, not even Kaleb Tarczewski could stop Kaminsky.
The Wildcats lost and riots broke out on University Boulevard, which led to students being tackled by riot force and hit with rubber bullets.
The next season, the Wildcats got their loss delivered by Wisconsin guard Sam Dekker, who shot 5-6 from 3-point line.
So, in back-to-back seasons, potential national championship squads were shut down by the Badgers.
Last season the Wildcats were cut short in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Wichita State and the team wasn’t favored to advance to the Sweet 16, so the expectations were lowered.
Arizona comes into this season with veterans, Miller’s best recruiting class to date and a chip on its shoulder, considering the Final Four is in Glendale, Arizona. There are question marks all around the program in terms of where players will fit, which is a good problem to have for Miller.
Usually the expression is good things come in threes, but if good things come in twenties, then Arizona should be cutting down the nets come April.
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