It didn’t take long for the first controversy of this year’s NCAA Tournament to commence. Arizona was the sixth name posted on the bracket line when the pairings were announced. Most of the self proclaimed expert Bracketologists had the Wildcats as one of the first four teams eliminated from receiving an at-large bid. As ESPN’s Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast my friend.”
The Wildcats earned their 25th consecutive trip to the big dance with victories over three seed Kansas, four seeds Gonzaga and Washington, six seed UCLA and Pac-10 Tournament champion USC. During the season they defeated four regular season conference champions (Pac-10 Wash., Big-XII Kansas, Big Sky Weber State and West Coast Gonzaga). Make no mistake, the Wildcats played their way into this tournament.
Accolades have to go out to ESPN’s Hubert Davis and CBS’ Greg Anthony, both of whom proclaimed Arizona as a tournament worthy team before the bids were announced. During ESPN’s coverage of the announcement of the brackets, analysts Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale had a heated debate over Arizona’s at-large selection. Vitale complained that Arizona did not belong in. He felt that St. Mary’s should have been selected instead of Arizona. Bilas pointed out the schedule that Arizona had played and the wins they had compiled. Vitale complained that St. Mary’s scheduled teams that did not have as good of a season as they were predicted to have. By this logic, 75 teams would make the NCAA Tournament every year.
Interim Coach Russ Pennell and Associate Coach Mike Dunlap did a great job holding this team together. They got back to Olson’s more up tempo style after a season under Kevin O’Neill’s more conservative approach. The team was closer this season and seemed to enjoy playing together more.
Let’s put in perspective how amazing this streak is. Arizona has compiled a 40-23 record in the NCAA Tournament since 1985. Between 1988 and 2003 they were never lower than a five seed and that was only in 1995. They earned a No. 1 seed five times. The Wildcats won 1997 National Championship, finished as the 2001 National Runner-up, have made Four Final Fours, advanced to Seven Elite Eights, and made 11 Sweet 16’s appearances. The 1997 run included victories over three number one seeds and they defeated two number one seeds on their way to a National Runner-up finish in 2001.
From 1985 to 2005, Arizona virtually owned the Pac-10. They won 11 conference titles, four tournament titles and only finished below third once. Their only finish outside the top three was during their 1997 National Championship season when they finished fifth.
When Lute Olson took over a 4-24 mess following Ben Lindsay’s only season in 1983, a streak like this was unthinkable. That Olson was able to turn the program around in only two seasons is amazing. Along the way Olson set the Pac-10 record with 327 career wins, sent over 30 players to the NBA and picked up a Gold Medal at the 1986 World Championships.
The last few seasons haven’t been up the incredible standards that Olson has set. Whether or not the streak continues in 2010 will depend greatly on how well the new coach can blend his system with the players returning.
Which players the new coach convinces to return will also go a long way towards determining if Arizona can make it 26 years in a row next season. Jordan Hill is likely headed to the NBA as a lottery pick. Chase Budinger most likely will follow as a mid-to-late first-round pick. Budinger could use another year of college. It would be asking a lot of the McDonald’s All-American to play for his fourth coach in as many seasons. Nic Wise has done an amazing job as the Point Guard the last two seasons. He has already cemented his status in the long line of great lead guards at Point Guard U. He flirted with transferring after the 2008 season, but most likely will be back in 2010. If he transferred now, he would have to sit out next season and have only 2011 remaining in his college eligibility.
Arizona’s 25-year run of consecutive NCAA Tournaments is the second longest in the history of college basketball. Only North Carolina’s run during from 1975 to 2001 was longer. In the last 25 years, only Duke and North Carolina have made more Final Four appearances.
What has your team accomplished in those 24 years?