There's certain to be no shortage of grumblings from Arizona's fan base about the 2011-'12 campaign. The season was sprinkled with adversity, thrilling triumph and gut-wrenching near-misses.
Let's get the bad out of the way:
- UA lost five games by four points or fewer, including Saturday's Pac-12 Championship. Head coach Sean Miller summed up the campaign perfectly in his press conference, saying " We're not games away. We're probably about four plays away, which includes today's game."
- Indeed, the Wildcats had ample opportunities to beat Colorado. UA shot an uncharacteristically poor 26.3 percent from behind the 3-point arc, and an even more frustrating 55.6 percent at the foul line.
- Free throws impacting an outcome was nothing new for this particular UA team. Against Oregon, the Wildcats made just 60 percent. In their first losses to CU and Washington, UA hit above its season average but missed several in crunch time.
- Josiah Turner's suspension leaves question marks, particularly as it pertains to the last play when UA looked lost. Note: This blogger would not make the suggestion, but there's no shortage of pundits pondering it.
Now, here's the good: the season isn't over yet. While it isn't a shot at New Orleans and the Final Four, UA can make a run at college basketball's most historic venue, Madison Square Garden. And with the likelihood of games at McKale Center, now is not the time to abandon the '11-'12 Wildcats.
Miller began talking NIT immediately after Saturday's loss. Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin tweeted the following.
"The NIT has changed," Miller said. " I don't think everybody's up to date with it. There are 32 teams in that tournament. You don't get in that tournament because you have sellouts. You get into that tournament because you earn it.
"If we're fortunate enough to be in that tournament and draw a home game...I want to fight and get these guys as far as we can. If that's New York City in the Final Four of the NIT, great. But it has everything to do with trying to have a magical season to win as many games and compete for championships."
Playing in the NIT and the NCAA in a season like this the difference between playing for a championship, and merely just being there. The latter became a problem for UA teams leading up to Miller's arrival.
Lute Olson made history when he began The Streak in 1984. I, like many Wildcat fans and alumni, knew nothing but NCAA Tournament in my lifetime following UA basketball. However, The Streak became an object of obsession like The One Ring.
UA fans withered into Gollum-like creatures, sweating out Selection Sundays in pursuit of their precious.
The Streak's end in 2010 was a blessing in disguise. Recent Wildcat teams that may not have had any business in the NCAA Tournament were there, simply because of the name on the front of their jersey. Losses to Purdue and West Virginia accomplished little beyond extending The Streak.
Without a streak over which to obsess, the NIT can be judged more rationally. Foremost is the extension of Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry and Brandon Lavender's college careers. The three each contributed tremendously in the season's final month. Fogg and Perry both garnered All Pac-12 Tournament honors for their efforts this weekend.
" I hope Jesse can play as many games at Arizona as he possibly can," Miller said.
Assuredly there are skeptics who have read the above and scoff.
This is Arizona. The NIT shouldn't be the goal.
Such sentiment is absolutely correct...for the long term.
Remember, Miller was hired into a rebuilding project -- one so dire, some experts wondered if it wouldn't take until his first recruiting class's senior year until the tournament was a realistic target. By Year 2, the Wildcats were one shot from the Final Four, and in Year 3 played in a second consecutive Pac-12 Championship.
The rebuilding project is ahead of schedule, and the NIT fits into the bigger picture of that process. More games equals more practices for Nick Johnson, Jordin Mayes, Angelo Chol, Solomon Hill. It's a theory football coaches tout when qualifying for bowl games.
Reaching the postseason can be as much a building block for the next season as it is an indicator of the current, particularly for a young team like Miller's. Chol grew up before our eyes and has shown glimpses of stardom. Hill may already be there, and next season has an opportunity to join Sean Elliott, Chris Mills and Derrick Williams in the pantheon of great Wildcat forwards.
Anything that fortifies that foundation has to be viewed positively.
So it's not the NCAA Tournament. But a shot at 28 wins and a championship isn't such a bad consolation.