Arizona Wildcats Basketball: Rating No. 1-Ranked Teams in Program's History
The Arizona Wildcats' basketball program is on the verge of being ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since the 2002-03 season. If Arizona beats UNLV on Saturday in Tucson, the second-ranked Wildcats should earn the No. 1 ranking after top-ranked Michigan State was upset by visiting North Carolina on Wednesday.
Eleven long seasons, including the turbulence after Lute Olson took a leave of absence in 2007-08 and retired before the 2008-09 season, separate the Arizona Wildcats from the distinction of being college basketball's top team.
Most of the Arizona Wildcats' student body was in elementary school when Jason Gardner, Channing Frye and Luke Walton were atop the college basketball world in 2002-03. None of them were around when Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr earned the program's first No. 1 ranking in 1987-88.
The Arizona Wildcats have been a relevant program in college basketball since Olson's second season in 1984-85. For almost 30 years, the Wildcats have been synonymous with winning basketball. Since Elliott and Kerr took Arizona to the next level in 1988 with a Final Four appearance, the Wildcats have been one of the top brands in college athletics (via Arizona Daily Star).
Despite three decades of dominance, the Arizona Wildcats have only had five teams that reached No. 1 in the AP polls. They can add No. 6 on Saturday.
Those five No. 1 teams define the Arizona Wildcats programs with players such as Elliott, Kerr, Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Gardner, Walton, Richard Jefferson, Salim Stoudamire and Andre Iguodala.
Damon Stoudamire and the 1993-94 Arizona Wildcats team that reached the Final Four never reached No. 1 despite starting 12-1 that year. The 1996-97 team that won the national title lost nine games and finished No. 15 in the last regular-season AP Top 25 poll.
No question the Arizona Wildcats' five No. 1-ranked teams in the nation are an elite group. The group does not include some of the best to wear the Arizona uniform: Chris Mills, Brian Williams, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Derrick Williams.
The following slideshow is a ranking within a ranking: Judging the five No. 1-ranked teams in Arizona Wildcats history stacked against each other.
No. 5: Arizona Wildcats 2000-01 Team
The Arizona Wildcats' 2000-01 team that reached the national championship game against Duke started the year as the preseason No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll.
Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas, one of the best backcourts in Arizona history, were part of a team that lost eight games. The season was very difficult for the Wildcats with the death of Lute Olson's wife, Bobbi Olson, from ovarian cancer midway through the season.
The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 for the first three weeks before struggling to a 7-4 non-conference record, partly because of the last days of Bobbi Olson's life. The way she touched her husband of 47 years and the program was very profound.
Olson missed his first game with the Wildcats when they lost to Mississippi State at McKale Center on Dec. 30, 2000, two days before his wife's passing.
"We were all very close to his wife," Luke Walton said in an interview with the New York Daily News. "She played a major role with me coming here. She was such a sweet lady. Every time you saw her, she always had something nice to say."
The Wildcats responded late in the season by winning 11 consecutive games before falling to Duke 82-72 in the national title game.
The team also included one of the program's best frontcourts (center Loren Woods, power forward Michael Wright and small forward Richard Jefferson). Walton played the role well of Arizona's sixth man.
With eight losses and a second-place finish behind Stanford in the Pac-10 standings, the 2000-01 Wildcats are not the best team to be ranked No. 1, however.
No. 4: Arizona Wildcats 1997-98 Team
Similar to the 2000-01 team, the defending national champion 1997-98 team included one of the best backcourts in the Arizona Wildcats' history. Jason Terry was invaluable as the Sixth Man, much like Luke Walton with the 2000-01 team.
Mike Bibby and Miles Simon led a 1997-98 team that started the season ranked No. 1 for the first three weeks but never reached that lofty perch again.
The Wildcats, who also included sharpshooter and prolific scorer Michael Dickerson, lost three non-conference games before starting 16-0 in the Pac-10. Arizona climbed as high as No. 2 after dropping to No. 8 on Dec. 29, 1997.
Duke's team, led by Roshown McLeod and Trajan Langdon, was a hard team to crack at No. 1 that season. The Blue Devils defeated Arizona 95-87 in the championship game of the Maui Classic early in the season.
The Arizona Wildcats took everybody's best shot as the defending national champion but still managed to finish 30-5 before losing to Utah 76-51 in the Elite Eight.
''I don't know how many years in a row that no one has beaten us in the Pac-10 without storming the floor and cutting down the nets,'' Olson was quoted as saying by the Orlando Sentinel after winning the national title in 1997.
''So I think they're tough-minded enough. I think they'll work hard enough to give it the best shot they can. That's all you can ask of them.''
No. 3: Arizona Wildcats 1988-89 Team
With Steve Kerr exhausting his eligibility the previous season, the nation was skeptical about the Arizona Wildcats establishing another prominent season.
The Arizona Wildcats started the 1988-89 season ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll despite the program's best player, Sean Elliott, returning for his senior season.
The cause for concern: The loss of Kerr and backcourt mate Craig McMillan. Aggressive power forward Tom Tolbert also exhausted his eligibility.
Elliott was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article, "Can you make up for five years of experience at point guard and four years of starting experience at the off-guard? I mean, that's a lot to do."
The 1988-89 team blossomed into one of the nation's best with Elliott, post player Anthony Cook and guard Kenny Lofton establishing significant career records in the season.
Elliott is the Arizona Wildcats' career scoring leader with 2,555 points. Cook remains the shot-block leader with 278. Lofton became the first player in the program's history to reach 200 steals.
Arizona lacked size inside with the loss of Tolbert but the play of Lofton and sophomore guard Matt Muehlebach eased the transition without Kerr and McMillan. Lofton and Muehlebach combined for 236 assists and 118 turnovers, an exact ideal 2-to-1 ratio of assists to turnovers.
The Wildcats reached No. 1 for the first time on Feb. 6, 1989. They finished the last three weeks of the regular season ranked No. 1.
The storybook ending to Elliott's collegiate career came to an unfortunate end, however, with Arizona losing to UNLV in the Sweet 16.
No. 2: Arizona Wildcats 2002-03 Team
No other team in the history of Arizona Wildcats basketball has been ranked No. 1 more in a season than the 2002-03 team.
The Wildcats, featuring one of the most talented top seven players in a rotation in the program's history, were atop the rankings for 13 of the 19 weeks of the regular season.
Jason Gardner was a senior leader at point guard for a team that returned all of its starters from the previous season. Salim Stoudamire was only a sophomore but was one of the best perimeters shooters in the nation. Luke Walton was another senior captain who emerged as one of Olson's best forwards in the coach's tenure at Arizona.
Rick Anderson was a solid contributor as a starting power forward. And Channing Frye was a sophomore capable of becoming one of the best post players Olson produced.
The bench featured athletic freshman guards Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala, two players who could soar through the lane and wreak havoc defensively.
Olson told Sports Illustrated entering that season that it was one of his most balanced teams.
"I think we’re going to be a very well-balanced team," he said. "I don’t think we’re going to have to rely on one guy to put up big numbers. The key will be to make sure we’re getting a good shot regardless of who is taking it."
The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 for five consecutive weeks before falling to No. 2 after an overtime loss to UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament. Arizona survived a classic double-overtime game against Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament before eventually losing to Kansas in the Elite Eight.
No. 1: Arizona Wildcats 1987-88 Team
It's difficult to top the first time, and that's the case for Arizona's first No. 1-ranked team, the 1987-88 edition that finished 35-3. The team included the two most popular players in the history of the program, small forward Sean Elliott and point guard Steve Kerr.
The Arizona Wildcats, who finished 35-3 that season, reached No. 1 for the first time in the week of Dec. 21, 1987. They were one of the Top Three ranked teams in the AP Top 25 poll the remainder of the season.
Arizona followed its first No. 1 ranking with convincing victories against Washington State, Michigan State and Duke to improve to 12-0. The Wildcats lost their first game of the season against New Mexico 61-59 at The Pit on Jan. 2, 1988.
Lute Olson's team then went on to win eight straight games before losing at Stanford 82-74 on Feb. 4. That was the last regular-season loss as the Wildcats went on to win 15 consecutive games before losing to Oklahoma in the Final Four.
The Wildcats featured the best, most cohesive starting lineup in the program's history. Elliott, Kerr, power forward Tom Tolbert and Craig McMillan started every game that season. Anthony Cook missed only one start. The bench included "The Gumbies" a wild, supportive group that featured productive players such as Kenny Lofton, Harvey Mason, Matt Muehlebach and Jud Buechler.
Arizona celebrated the 25th anniversary of the team before last season at the Red-Blue Scrimmage at McKale Center. Five members of the team are broadcasters today—Kerr (with TNT as an NBA commentator and CBS as a Final Four broadcaster), Elliott (as a Spurs analyst), Tolbert (a Bay area radio personality), Lofton (a Dodgers analyst for Fox after his illustrious MLB career) and Muehlebach (analyst for Pac-12 Networks and Arizona games on the radio).
Mason is a highly successful music and film producer. Buechler played 12 years in the NBA and won three NBA Finals with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
McMillan, the head coach at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, said the 1987-88 Wildcats are successful to this day because “all the guys on the team are leaders. They are sharp, highly motivated guys” (via TucsonCitizen.com).
“The other thing too is we have a lot of good players," Tolbert said. "Kenny is going to be either in the [baseball] Hall of Fame or pretty damn close. I think he should be in the Hall of Fame because he was a dominant player for close to a decade.
"When you’re that good, things happen. Steve won a ring (actually five of them in the NBA) and Sean won a ring … when you’re that good, it affords you a chance to be a commentator because they want people who have accomplished things and won things, which is amazing that I get to do it."
Please read Javier Morales' blog at TucsonCitizen.com