Wildcat Blues: Why Arizona Should Have Gone to the NIT

Jay MiddletonCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2008

Springtime is here, which can mean only one thing: the Wildcats have been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.

Lute Olson is one of the greatest coaches ever to grace the court—his 781 career wins puts him eighth on the all-time list.  He’s got 11 Pac-10 titles and the most wins in conference history. He built the Wildcats into a national powerhouse, and was rewarded for his effort with a national title in 1997.

But since that scrappy four-seed-knocked-off-three-No. 1s en route to their overtime championship-game upset, Arizona basketball has been marked less by grit and determination, and more by a sense of entitlement.

Over the last decade, Olson’s teams, while impressive on paper, routinely underperform on the court, and often highlight individual prowess at the expense of chemistry, solid teamwork, and most of all, motivation.

This year’s squad was no different than recent years’. Several talented youngsters (Bayless, Budinger, Wise), all came up big in various games throughout the season, but rarely on the same night.

That’s what happened Thursday night.  In the end, the Mountaineers simply wanted it more.  They outworked and outhustled Arizona underneath the basket.  Our players stopped fighting for rebounds—or even position—and over the last ten minutes, WVU closed the game out.

Did it look familiar, Wildcat fans? 

It should have, because seven days earlier, Stanford did the exact same thing to us in the Staples Center.  After about a half-hour of valiant effort, the Cats folded up and went home.

As Olson enters the twilight of his career, he leaves behind no uncertain legacy.  His claim to fame consists of two elements: Zona's success in sending players to the NBA (not an insignificant feat), and its streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, which now stands at 24.

The streak is important to most Wildcat fans, because it’s the closest thing to success that most of us have seen in the new millennium.  As one of my fellow alumni said after our ignominious bow at the Staples Center, “I don’t care, I just wanna keep the streak alive.”

Well, so would we all. The problem is, just making the cut is not in itself a sign of accomplishment.

When a team like Davidson or Cornell manages to claw its way into the postseason, and maybe even wins a game or two, its fans are jubilant—and rightly so. 

But an allegedly top-tier team shouldn’t celebrate simply being competitive in the Top 65.

And when such celebration comes at the expense of tangible accomplishment, the panacea of a meaningless streak can quickly turn into an active exercise in self-denial.

As it stands in 2008—while other schools get the conference titles, the national titles, and respect across the country for their consistently top-notch play—Arizona fades further into memory...a team everyone knows is supposed to be good, but not one that strikes fear into any knowledgeable fan’s heart.

So: why did the Wildcats make the tourney? 

A likely factor in the committee’s decision was strength of schedule. The Wildcats elected to play what looked to be the toughest schedule in the nation at season’s start (they eventually wound up with an SOS of 2), and were rewarded with an RPI of 37.

However, outside of the mandarin workings of bracketology, having an exacting schedule is only helpful so far as your team is up to the level of competition. Against teams that finished in the Top 25, Arizona was 2-6. Against other Pac-10 teams that made the postseason (NCAA or NIT), Arizona was a shameful 5-9.

The other reason the Wildcats made the tourney was simply because Arizona is a “name” school.  Year in and year out, the selection committee is accustomed to finding the Wildcats in the field of 65. When faced with the choice of including Arizona for their 24th year, or taking a chance on an untested and unfamiliar program in the postseason, members of the committee (as people tend to do) went for the choice they were used to making.

As a result, an underperforming, underachieving, unimpressive Wildcat squad was invited to the dance, at the expense of other "school-less-established-but-morehungry." 

Teams such as Ohio State, Virginia Tech—or, dare I say it—the hated ASU Sun Devils, who had more wins, a better conference record, and who, most damningly, swept the season series from us for the first time since 1995.

Don’t worry about ASU, though. While we were privileged with the thrill of watching our team fall apart at the 30-minute mark for the umpteenth time this season, our brethren in Tempe have been watching their Devils cruise through the NIT—in person, I might add—because ASU’s number-one seed in that tournament earned them the right to play their games at home.

They’ll face Florida tonight in what will most likely be a thrilling game—two young squads, hungry for respect, figuring how to win the big one when the pressure’s on.

That could have been the Wildcats, gaining valuable experience in a one-and-done tournament setting, playing in front of packed crowds at McKale.  Learning.  Growing as a team. Getting ready for a deep run in the real deal the following year.

Instead, they got a quick trip cross-country and a one-day head start on the weekend. 

Awesome.  Let’s head to Dirtbags and line up some shots.

Hey, at least we kept the streak intact.

The return of Olson and the maturation of the current class (assuming they stay—graduation from Arizona has not always translated into future earning potential in the NBA) may signal a return to form.  And who knows?  Maybe the adversity the team has faced over the past two seasons hardened them into a battle-ready squadron, ready to go the distance in Detroit.

But who knows how many more classes like this we’re going to get?  If this season has shown anything, it’s that the future of the program without Olson is uncertain.

For Arizona to continue to recruit beyond Lute’s reign, we’re going to have to return to our winning ways in his remaining years, as he heads into his swan song.

The longer we keep taking free passes, the further away we’re gonna be from another championship.