The Arizona basketball season has felt like a three-hour-long Oscar award-winning movie.
There were Kodak moments, injuries, adversity and disappointments, but it all came together in time for Arizona to win a Pac-12 Championship, which appeared to be impossible considering the circumstances at the season’s start. From the second media day started, there was so much hype surrounding the team because it was arguably the most talented squad head coach Sean Miller has ever had at Arizona.
Players like five-star point guard Kobi Simmons were expected to lead the team, and a 7-footer from Finland named Lauri Markkanen was the international man of mystery. Rawle Alkins looked like a Mack truck, and he hadn’t even lifted weights before coming to Arizona. The veterans looked to bounce back from a first-round NCAA Tournament exit at the hands of Wichita State. Allonzo Trier’s NBA preparation season was on the cusp and Ray Smith was returning from an ACL injury.
Those were the Kodak moments because everyone was full of joy, taking selfies and modeling for the multiple photo shoot areas set up at media day in late September.
That special moment was a small window because, just a few minutes after stepping on the court in an exhibition game against the College of Idaho, Smith went down with yet another torn ACL. Trier surprisingly sat on the bench in street clothes.
Wait, wasn’t Trier supposed to be having the season of his life to prepare for the NBA draft? We’ll get to that part of the movie later.
So without Smith and Trier, the Wildcats went into the season opener against No. 12 Michigan State down two players. It didn’t matter anyways, because guard Kadeem Allen went coast-to-coast and hit a buzzer beater layup to seal the win.
“The identity and characteristics of this team is this guy right here,” Miller said about Allen. “He’s as hard of a playing guy as I’ve seen, and he won’t let his team lose.”
After the Michigan State win, Arizona played well down two players until Allen injured his knee and Parker Jackson-Cartwright suffered a sprained ankle, leading to losses against Butler and Gonzaga.
In just a span of less than two months, the Wildcats didn’t have an established lineup and dropped two games outside of the conference.
That’s when the Wildcats had the “look at yourself in the mirror” moment every actor has in movies and saddled up to overcome the awful hand that was dealt to them.
Even though they were sluggish in non-conference play, the three freshmen were still contributing and doing just enough to give Arizona wins going into Pac-12 Conference play.
Markkanen’s size and ability to work on the outside put his name in the lottery pick discussion; Alkins was the bruiser and glue piece on the wing, while Simmons was the electrifying guard that thrived on offense.
“Throughout the whole season, we’ve faced adversity and they’ve been the rock of this team all year,” Allen said.
As the conference schedule progressed, Arizona faced its toughest test at UCLA, and the heroic acts of Trier came into play. After sitting out the first 19 games of the season, he was cleared to play after it was discovered he had been suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in September. The UCLA student section chanted “steeeeeeroids” and “P-E-Ds,” but Trier lifted Arizona to a signature road victory.
With Trier back, plus Jackson-Cartwright and Allen returning to full health, the Wildcats were ready to take on the other top dog in the Pac-12 in the Oregon Ducks. However, the ‘Cats were sent home by the Ducks with their tails between their legs, sorely beaten by 27 points.
Then Arizona lost to UCLA on national primetime television with ESPN’s College GameDay in town and had to settle for a share of the Pac-12 regular season championship with Oregon. Arizona avenged their losses to the Bruins and Ducks in the Pac-12 Tournament, claiming the outright conference tournament championship.
Who would’ve thought the team that had seven scholarship players available at one point was cutting down nets?
“Our depth of experience of all that we’ve been through this year, the fight that we’ve had from start to finish, has really prepared us,” Miller said. “Nothing is easy in this tournament. The unexpected happens and you have to be able to fight through it to get there.”
As the No. 2 seed in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament, Arizona grinded out their first two games, and their season was in jeopardy against Saint Mary’s College because Alkins left the game with a dislocated finger while Arizona was down 10.
Just when it looked like the Wildcats were going to waltz their way into the Elite Eight and rematch Gonzaga to punch their ticket for the Final Four in Glendale, Xavier overcame an 8-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining to upset Arizona.
The Wildcats were left stunned in San Jose, California. A Sweet Sixteen appearance isn’t what was expected from most, but Trier said the season was a success regardless of the finish.
“We’re very happy for coach Miller.” Trier said. “This is something he’s not new to, and it kind of feels funny because last year he didn’t have that deep run in the tournament that he usually has.”
Once the end of the season settled, Markkanen declared for the NBA Draft in a press conference Thursday, and the Finnish forward is projected to be selected in the top 10.
Miller declined to announce any other decisions from players, so the film isn’t over until every player has announced what their plans will be for the future.
This team has been thrown in the ring of fire only to come out tougher and more resilient. With a few players still hinging on their decision to declare for the NBA, the movie isn’t over yet.
Grab your popcorn and enjoy the rest of the show.
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