For most of the 2013-14 season, Arizona looked like it finally had all the answers for its first serious NCAA title run since Lute Olson retired. But after a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Wisconsin in the West Region final, the top-seeded Wildcats are left with nothing but questions.
One of the biggest questions involves the definition of an offensive foul, the kind for which Nick Johnson was whistled in the final seconds of the extra session with Arizona trailing by a point. On a play that could easily have drawn no call or a defensive foul, Johnson was called for a push-off against Josh Gasser that helped seal the Wildcats’ 64-63 loss.
After a Wisconsin turnover, Johnson actually had a second chance to win it, but his desperation try came after the buzzer. If just another fraction of a second had been left on the clock after the interminable official review—which, admittedly, did award the ball to Arizona—the Wildcats' scoring leader could have been the hero instead of seeing his March run end in a one-possession loss for the second straight year.
Johnson himself was well aware of how narrow that margin was.
As the frustrated junior said in the postgame press conference, “I wish I would have taken one less dribble, get the shot off, give us a little chance." Had he pulled the trigger before the buzzer sounded—and had the shot fallen, unlike the one he hoisted a moment too late—it would've turned a good season for the Pac-12 champion Wildcats into a great one.
With all the near misses, no question looms larger for Arizona than the one that can only be blamed on bad luck: What if Brandon Ashley, who landed badly after a shot in the opening minutes of a road game against California, hadn’t suffered a season-ending broken foot? With one more offensive weapon to throw at Wisconsin’s stifling defense, would the Wildcats have gotten the upper hand in OT or even been able to secure a win in regulation?
Even without Ashley’s soft jump-shooting touch on a front line along with Kaleb Tarczewski’s defense and Aaron Gordon’s dunking, the Wildcats still came achingly close to their first Final Four since 2001. But that raises yet another question: How long will it be before Sean Miller's team breaks through?
Based on Miller's performance in five years at the helm, the wait shouldn't be much longer. He’s now on his second season of coaching a roster composed entirely of his own recruits, and he’s gone to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in those two campaigns.
Miller’s remarkable record of bringing in top prospects is a major reason for that optimism, as he’s on his fourth straight season of landing a top-10 freshman class, per ESPN.com (subscription required). On the flip side, that incoming talent means he’s also dealing with plenty of early departures.
Gordon, the prize of last year’s recruiting haul for the Wildcats, appears to be headed out the door, per Yahoo!’s Marc J. Spears:
Barring a stunning change of mind, freshman Aaron Gordon has likely played his last game at Arizona and is headed to the NBA, sources said.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) March 30, 2014
The imminent arrival of the next superstar West Coast forward (incoming freshman Stanley Johnson out of Santa Ana) should blunt Gordon’s departure and keep the Wildcats in position to take another shot at an NCAA title run next season.
For the moment, though, the focus will be on where Gordon might have been headed with a little better luck: Arlington, Texas, the site of a Final Four that Wildcats fans will remember as one that got away.