From the late 1980s to just past the millennium, Lute Olson had the Arizona Wildcats basketball program in a place surpassed by very few. Along the way, the Wildcats gave their fans the excitement that came from countless victories including the 1997 National Championship. But during this same span of time, there may not be another program with so many tough losses.
This list recounts, with some trepidation and heart ache, the top (or bottom) 10 toughest losses in Arizona's basketball history. All 10 came during the reign of Hall-of-Famer Robert Luther Olson.
Damon Stoudamire's senior season would end very similarly to Jason Terry's. Both Wildcat point guards won the Pac-10 Player of the Year award, both played on teams that had less talent than the year before and both were upset in the first round.
In the 1994-95 season, Arizona was coming off an incredible run to the Final Four. The Wildcats lost one of the all-time greats in Khalid Reeves but still had Stoudamire, a very productive Ray Owes, and two youngsters in Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon. The team finished the regular season ranked 15th and was seeded fifth.
They played an unknown Miami of Ohio in the first round. The Wildcats were in a funk the entire contest and lost by nine. It was a disappointing way to end the stellar career of Damon Stoudamire.
The 1988-89 Arizona Wildcats team is one rarely spoken of. Maybe because the year before the Wildcats went to the Final Four. Or because several high profile players left. Or maybe expectations were just not as high, but whatever the reason, this team might have been better than the 1988 version.
Starting the season outside the top 10, the Wildcats were No. 1 in the AP poll for the final three weeks. Sean Elliott was Pac-10 POY, won the Wooden Award and was a consensus all-american. Anthony Cook put up 17.5 points per game and Jud Buechler added another 11. They finished the season at 27-3, 17-1 in the Pac-10, and were a No. 1 seed.
They breezed through the first two rounds with victories of 34 and 26. Then they played the fourth-seeded UNLV. The teams had met earlier in the season and Arizona came away with a double-digit victory. This time was different. UNLV got solid games from Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony to beat the Wildcats by one. It was the first in a long line of bitter early exits for Arizona, and one of the great Lute Olson teams to lose way to soon in the NCAA tournament.
After the departure of Dickerson, Simon and Bibby, Jason Terry was finally the man. As mentioned earlier, he was the Pac-10 POY and dominated many of the contests he was in. He lead the Wildcats to second place finish in the conference and a fourth seed in the tournament.
Pitted against Eduardo Najera and an unranked Oklahoma team in the first round, Terry was held in check. He shot only 4-17 and finished with 15 points. Najera had 17 points and 13 rebounds, but got the help from three teammates who scored in double figures. This was too much for Arizona who again lost by a single point.
This is where the losses really start to hurt. Although young, this team finished the season ranked No. 4 because it was stacked. Jason Gardner, Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright, Loren Woods, Luke Walton, and Rick Anderson made up some of the cast. Five of those guys averaged more than 10 points and three more than 15. This team was as well rounded as any team Olson had coached until this point. They finished the season at 26-6 and were the Pac-10 champs.
They were a No. 1 seed in the West Region and pounded their opening round opponent. Then came the eight seeded Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers, lead by Dick Bennett, had already lost 13 games that season and finished sixth in their conference. They were not a very good team. But they had a great coach, and played great defense (finishing fourth in the country in points allowed). They held Arizona to the lowest point total of the year and beat the Wildcats by seven, 66-59.
This Arizona team had as much talent as any in the nation in 2000, and with the weak field and average eventual national champion, Arizona probably would have reached the Final Four and could have won it all if not for the pesky Badgers of Wisconsin.
In 2002-03, many of the players from the 1999-2000 team had turned into seniors and the team was nearly unbeatable. An example came mid-season against Kansas. Then they went to Allen Fieldhouse in January and played the fourth ranked Jayhawks. Down at the half, the Wildcats exploded in the second period. Sophomore Salim Stoudamire went off, knocking down six threes and scoring 32. Jason Gardner scored 23. The Jayhawks were outscored by 30 in the second half and lost by 17.
Coming off the bench after Gardner, Luke Walton, Stoudamire, Rick Anderson and Channing Frye was Andre Iguodala, Hassan Adams, Will Bynum and Isaiah Fox. The team finished the regular season at 25-2 and won the Pac-10 at 17-1 in the league. They were ranked No. 1 nearly wire to wire. How Olson didn't win championships with teams like this is an absolute mystery.
The Wildcats barely beat Gonzaga in the second round but then pounded Notre Dame in the third. Then they faced the team they routed on the road earlier in the season. But this time Kansas shut down Salim Stoudamire. They lead nearly the entire game and beat the Wildcats on their way to a loss in the National Championship game.
With six future pros in the lineup and another top-10 national ranking, Arizona was loaded and ready for a deep tournament run. The Buccaneers of East Tennessee State had other ideas. The Bucs won their conference and actually gained confidence from a strong performance in Tucson the year before.
The Wildcats got decent performances from all their stars, Mills, Reeves, Stoudamire and Rooks, but East Tennessee State had too much scoring of their own. Six players nearly scored double figures and Arizona was never able to get on top, losing 87-80. This loss continued the frustration for Wildcat fans but it was only the beginning of what was to come.
It is hard to say that a loss in the championship game is disappointing, but that doesn't mean the defeat wasn't tough. The team which was seeded first the year before was all back. Arenas, Gardner, Walton, Jefferson, Woods, Wright and glue guy Eugene Edgerson were ready to put on a show; and they did.
Despite a slow start, the team won 15 of the last 18 games of the season and picked up a second seed in the tournament. By the time they dismantled Michigan State in the Final Four, Arizona had won 11 in a row and were primed to take another title. Five guys were scoring in double figures and they had enough depth for two teams. The problem was they ran into one of the best teams in modern history in the 2000-2001 Duke Blue Devils.
Duke's starting lineup consisted of Jason Williams (second overall NBA draft pick in 2002), National POY Shane Battier (sixth overall in 2001), Mike Dunleavy (third overall in 2002), Chris Duhon and Carlos Boozer. It was truly a great team. The Wildcats fought hard but just couldn't keep up with the Devils who won 82-72.
The game was tough for two reasons. First, the Wildcats were so close; they couldn't get any closer than the final game. And second, if it weren't for a no-call on Jason Williams while riding Jason Gardner piggyback, the result might have been different. Yet that didn't happen and Wildcat fans are left to wonder "what-if." It was another difficult defeat for the Cats but this team surely didn't disappoint.
This upset is talked about a lot. What is lost in the midst of the 1992-93 season (because of its unfortunate ending) is just how good this Arizona team was. With Chris Mills, who won the Pac-10 POY, Khalid Reeves, Damon Stoudamire, Ed Stokes, Ray Owes and Reggie Geary, the Wildcats had real NBA scoring threats at multiple spots. Six players on this team eventually ended up playing on an NBA team.
The Wildcats started the season with losses in two of the first four. Chris Mills and company dropped from ninth to 22nd in the AP poll. Then they won 19 games in a row. They finished the season at 24-3 and won the Pac-10 with a 17-1 conference record. This team could compete and beat anyone in the nation on any given night. They just happened to have trouble with the Santa Clara Broncos.
Santa Clara didn't win the West Coast Conference in the regular season. In fact, to end the regular season, the Broncos were barely over .500 with a 15-11 record. They lost to teams like San Diego (twice), Pepperdine and to Stanford by 29. They had one NBA player, Steve Nash, who was just a freshman and averaged less than 10 points. To be frank, this was not a good team.
Still considered one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history, the Wildcats shot 25 percent in the second half and 31 percent for the game. Adding to the Wildcats' problems, Chris Mills picked up his fourth foul very early and sat for 10 minutes. When the horn sounded, the fifth ranked Wildcats put Santa Clara and Steve Nash on the map with a 64-61 loss.
The 2004-05 Arizona Wildcats are one of the more underrated teams in the program's history.
They won the Pac-10 regular season and a total of 30 games. They had a lottery pick in Channing Frye and one of the best shooters in the history of college basketball in Salim Stoudamire. Add Hassan Adams, Ivan Radenovic and Mustafa Shakur to the mix, and Arizona had a very talented team.
Best of all, the Wildcats were playing their best ball late in the season. Before the game with Illinois they were 18-3 in the previous 21. They had firepower and were playing defense at a level higher than any team in Olson's history. It was for these reasons Arizona was the only real threat to beat the eventual champion North Carolina in 2005.
Against Illinois, the Wildcats put on a show for 36 minutes. They displayed how scary good they could be. They dominated every facet of the game and made a 36-1 team look mediocre. They were playing stifling defense and Hassan Adams was having his way on the offensive end.
With under four minutes left the Wildcats had a 15 point lead, 75-60. It looked as though Olson was heading to his fifth Final Four with another improbable victory over a No. 1 seed.
Then Deron Williams hit a three-pointer and the momentum shifted. The come back was on (For Arizona fans who want to open old wounds, here is the whole Illinois comeback with a musical accompaniment).
The Wildcats did nothing but turn the ball over (helped by swallowed whistles), Adams’ effectiveness was eliminated and Illinois couldn’t be stopped. When Williams hit a game-tying three pointer with 39 seconds left, the comeback was complete. The game went to overtime and Illinois took home a one-point victory.
This loss was so brutal for several reasons. First, the Wildcats had dominated for so much of the game. They totally shut down one of the best teams in modern history and were up 15 points with less than four minutes on the clock. It is almost unthinkable to give up a lead of that size so late in the game. Secondly, like stated earlier, this team was a real national title threat. If it weren't for the pure shock value of No. 1, this game would easily be first on the list.
Of all the great players and teams that played during the tenure of Lute Olson, the 1997-98 team was the best. Coming off the national title, Arizona had everything needed to repeat as champs. First, everyone came back. They had incredible guard play with consensus All-American Mike Bibby, the 1997 MOP Miles Simon and 1999 Pac-10 POY Jason Terry coming off the bench. At guard/small forward, Michael Dickerson led the team in scoring.
The Wildcats had quick, athletic size with A.J. Bramlett, Bennett Davison and Donnell Harris. They had hustle and glue with Eugene Edgerson. And they rounded it out with Josh Pastner's energy and intelligence.
If there was one thing Arizona could do it, was score. They did so at more than 90 points a game. They scored a hundred points or more five times and 125 twice. That is absurd. Three guys scored more than 17 a game (Dickerson, Bibby, Simon) and five more than 10. Once the team got rolling, they didn't stop. Olson's new and improved version didn't lose in the month of January. Or February either. They won 19 straight games. They finished 17-1 in the Pac-10 and were a No. 1 seed.
Blowing through the first three rounds of the tournament, Arizona ran into Utah and Rick Majerus.
Rick Majerus was a genius X’s and O’s guy. It showed in this game. When the mighty defending champs went to play his Utes, Majerus faced them with a triangle and two defense. It neutralized Miles Simon and the draft's second pick Mike Bibby who were a combined 4-24.
The Wildcats and Lute Olson were dumbfounded.
The team had 20 points at half and were ripped apart in the second. The 51 points they scored were 40 points less than the season average and 25 points less than Utah on this night.
It was a shocking end to what should have been only the second repeat since the days of UCLA's dominance. The Wildcats were good enough to beat anyone by 20 that year. Yet timing is everything and Arizona's talent was no match for the brain and savvy of Rick Majerus.
It was the scene of the Wildcats' most difficult defeat that was also the greatest victory for the legend that passed on this week. Rest in peace Rick Majerus, you will be missed.