Former Wildcat basketball player knows feeling of missing NCAA Tournament
As Arizona men's basketball prepares for its final game of the season before heading to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament, UA fans are in a position they have not been in for the past seven seasons; cheering on a team that may miss the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats currently sit in a tie for ninth place in the conference with a 17-13 record, meaning not only are they not getting a first-round bye for the Pac-12 Tournament, they will have to win it all to earn a trip to the big dance.
Arizona has not missed the NCAA Tournament since 2011-12, the third season under head coach Sean Miller, and has only missed it twice in his tenure.
Former Wildcat forward Max Wiepking experienced both the highs and lows during his four years at Arizona. Part of a Sweet 16 and an Elite 8 team, as well as the last two teams that missed the tournament under Miller, Wiepking walked on to the program during Miller’s first season as head coach. He was part of a group of newcomers that was among the most successful in program history.
Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill, Lamont "Momo" Jones and Kevin Parrom each joined Wiepking as part of the 2009 recruiting class that ranked 12th in the country according to Rivals and Scout. While the group took their lumps during their first season on an Arizona team that finished 16-15 and missed the postseason, they blossomed in their sophomore year, finishing 30-8 and winning the Pac-10 regular season title before losing in the Elite 8 to eventual champion UConn.
Wiepking was a member of the 2011-12 team that lost in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament to Bucknell, the last Arizona team to not play in the NCAA Tournament. The ‘Cats were ranked No. 16 to start the season, but a loss to Division II Seattle Pacific in an exhibition game was an omen of how the season would play out. A 4-2 start took the Wildcats out of the rankings completely, with a loss to rival Arizona State in the last game of the regular season likely ending their chances at an at-large bid. Arizona rebounded to make the Pac-12 title game but lost to Colorado 53-51 to seal its fate.
A little over 8,000 fans showed up to McKale Center four days later to watch Arizona lose a game that Wiepking said had a strange feeling to it.
“Everyone was definitely frustrated,“ Wiepking said. “Our goal every season is to make the NCAA Tournament, advance to the Final Four and win an NCAA Championship. It was a funny feeling going into those practices, because we knew we failed to reach our goals that season. There definitely wasn’t the same level of excitement to play in that NIT game as opposed to an NCAA Tournament game. I just remember it being such a strange feeling. We had our senior night that season and none of us were expecting to play another game in McKale. We prepared and tried to win against Bucknell, but everyone was definitely frustrated that we weren’t playing in the NCAA Tournament.“
Wiepking finished his collegiate career as part of the 2012-13 team that started the year 14-0 and ranked as high as No. 3 in the country, led by a top-3 recruiting class that brought such players as Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York, as well as grad transfer Mark Lyons. That team lost in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State, finishing the year 27-8. In total, Wiepking was a part of 96 wins during his four seasons at Arizona.
While Williams and Hill have gone on to play in the NBA, and Jones and Parrom have found success playing professionally in both the G League and overseas, Wiepking has gone a different route. After graduating, he worked with the Dallas Mavericks for two years as an analyst and in player development, before transitioning to a career with Tandem Sports & Entertainment out of Washington D.C. as a sports agent.
His agency represents such athletes as Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Jeremy Lin as well as ASU head coach Bobby Hurley. Williams is also a client of the agency, with Wiepking saying he keeps talking with many of his former teammates on a regular basis.
“I keep in touch with a lot of the guys,” Wiepking said. “I was actually with Gabe [York] the other day, with his Lakeland Magic playing the Washington Wizards G League team.”
Although he is three hours ahead of Tucson time, Wiepking does his best to keep up with the program and watch games.
“I always keep up with the team,” he said. “Always follow them and try to get out to Tucson for some games every year. It’s tough to watch every game out here, though, since I can’t get the Pac-12 Network.”
While his basketball days may be over, Wiepking looks back at his time as a Wildcat and being able to play under Miller proudly.
“My time at Arizona was the best four years of my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I met most of my best friends there, had the chance to be a part of one of the best basketball programs in the country and got to experience things like playing in Madison Square Garden and the NCAA Tournament," he said. "I think coach Miller is the best coach in the country and couldn’t thank him enough for giving me the opportunity to be a part of his program. To watch him build the program from where we were my freshman year to dominating the Pac-12 year in and year out and being a Final Four contender just about every year is incredible and something not many other coaches could do."
Follow Mark Lawson on Twitter