Five years ago, it seemed as if Arizona had reached the end of its consistent excellence in Basketball and was beginning a long and tenuous rebuilding process. Their longtime Hall of Fame Coach, Lute Olson, set to come back after his one year leave of absence, decided to retire at the beginning of the year for medical reasons, leaving the Wildcats with an interim head coach named Russ Pennell, a team lacking depth and leaning almost exclusively on its three stars: Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, and Nic Wise, and the loss of a draft class including Solomon Hill, Lamont “Momo” Jones, Kevin Parrom, and Derrick Williams to USC. This team barely made the NCAA Tournament, and made a small Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen, only to be utterly destroyed by the top seeded Louisville Cardinals. Pennell and Arizona parted ways after that season, and Arizona looked to hire a long-term coach who could bring Arizona back to its former glory.
The search for a new coach was a stressful one for the Cats. They went after a big name in John Calapari, who just ended a contract with Memphis, but lost him to Kentucky. They also pursued a few other well-known coaches, but to no avail. Finally, Arizona’s athletic director Greg Byrne made an offer to Sean Miller, then the coach of Xavier University. Miller had never even set foot on Arizona’s campus before, and initially declined Arizona’s offer, only to change his mind a few days later. Miller got to work immediately, convincing the recruits lost to USC to come to Arizona and be part of the program. Despite this, the Wildcats did horribly, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1984. Miller brought a Junior College transfer and a rebounding beast named Jesse Perry the next year, and that team, led by Derrick Williams, went to the Elite 8 and narrowly lost to the UConn Huskies, after beating a highly ranked Texas team and blowing out the #1 seeded Duke Blue Devils. The future looked bright for the Cats from then on, because although they lost Derrick Williams to the draft, they had a top ten recruiting class coming in, consisting of Josiah Turner, Sidiki Johnson, Nick Johnson, and Angelo Chol. Unfortunately, Sidiki Johnson and Josiah Turner had to be kicked off the team due to disciplinary issues, and Angelo Chol, a highly touted Sudanese prospect, never panned out. Arizona missed the tourney for the second time in three years, and ended up losing in the first round of the NIT’s at home against Bucknell.
Fortunately for the Cats, Miller was still recruiting like a madman, bringing in the #3 recruiting class in the country. They brought in 7 footer Kaleb Tarczewski, forwards Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley, 3 point specialist Gabe York, and Duquesne transfer point guard TJ McConnell, who red-shirted that year. Led by Solomon Hill, this team went into the Sweet 16 of last year’s tournament, losing on a last second prayer by LaQuinton Ross. The Cats have been strong ever since the loss, bringing in Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to be a part of the Wildcats this season.
The Cats are 19-0 as of Friday and have passed test after test, winning tough games on the road against Michigan, San Diego State, and UCLA, as well as on a neutral court when they won the NIT Preseason Tip-Off against Duke. They have arguably the best frontcourt in the country, with Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Aaron Gordon. They have an experienced backcourt in TJ McConnell and Nick Johnson, the latter, along with Gordon, being on the Wooden Top 25 list. They have great bench players in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York. Jordin Mayes gives the guards a rest, while providing a respectable defensive performance. Matt Korcheck, a Junior College transfer from Cochise College, Elliot Pitts, a freshman, and Jacob Hazzard, a talented point guard, among others sit on the bench, ready to contribute when they’re needed.
In games, the Wildcats play defense. Their guards pressure the ball, and their frontline protects the paint. They force teams to shoot, and they fight for rebounds. They get steals and run the break as good as anybody. They have a game plan and execute it, whether they have a comfortable lead or have just blown a big lead and let the other team back in it. They close games out, they create momentum for themselves with spectacular dunks. On offense, McConnell is everything the team needs. He’s cool and collected, has great handles, and can unconsciously hit the open man. He facilitates the offense and contributes to the unselfish style of play of the Cats. The ball is always moving, from one talented player to the next, until it reaches the right man who will put it into the basket. The Wildcats are fun to watch, with the pure team play, the lockdown defense which held Washington State to an all time low of 25 points in an entire game, the spectacular dunks, including a couple of 360 dunks from Nick Johnson, a high-flying power jam from Rondae, and athletic alley oops from Gordon. They play basketball as if they’re one, each player an extension of a single entity which will beat down anyone who stands in their way.
Sean Miller took only four years to bring Arizona together and to the top, as the Cats have been ranked #1 overall in the nation for 7 (going on 8) straight weeks, and are one of three undefeated teams left in the country. They are Final Four favorites, and have a very good chance of going undefeated throughout the entire season. They are considered one of the most complete teams in the country, and are possibly the best Arizona team in the history of the school. The rebuilding years are over, and a new era of excellence for Arizona Wildcats Basketball has begun. Let’s all enjoy the show.