Arizona basketball: Restoring order when it all seemed lost

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

People saw a riot after Arizona's Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin, but it was a over-simplification of a complex basketball season.

It was called a riot, only because there were riot police. Bullets were pepper balls.

Clarification: It was called a riot, only because there were riot police. Bullets were called beanbags pepper balls. Social media took Arizona fans to be hooligans. All of them. Tweets by a student newspaper caught national media attention, and it snowballed.

What was called a riot was really a collection of students on a two-block main drag that during most big events is packed full of students. The crowds were dispersed by 10 p.m., and according to the Arizona Daily Star, only 15 people were arrested.

The headlines on Deadspin, ESPN and even the Star made it a bigger deal than what it was, a few drunk kids -- and hundreds of others just seeking some entertainment -- bringing back the memories to a water-bottle striking an Oregon Ducks cheerleader after a football game.

The reality is it was an over-simplification of reactions to a confusing basketball season.

A thing we say around the SB Nation community is that "fan" means fanatic, and some rowdy characters certainly made that apparent after the Arizona Wildcats fell 64-63 in overtime to the Wisconsin Badgers.

It was called a riot, only because there were riot police. Bullets were pepper balls.

The truth is that those people took their confused emotions out the wrong way.

The majority of Arizona fans saw a year with Aaron Gordon as a missed opportunity. Gordon is likely going pro, leaving a lot of what-ifs on the table. What if Brandon Ashley had been healthy? What if Nick Johnson wasn't called for a push-off on a drive that would have given Arizona a one-point lead with seconds left?

By the way, a no-call might have simply led to a Wisconsin rebound -- Johnson missed his shot after the offensive foul -- which would not have given Arizona the ability to force a turnover.

Arguably, it was best to get the charge call.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson challenged the inbound pass, and the ball went off the fingertips of Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson, giving UA a final possession with 2.3 seconds left. And what if Johnson hadn't taken one too many dribbles, getting a final heave off after the overtime buzzer sounded?

Bottom line. Arizona lost as its best players missed too many shots, and Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky was too much of a mismatch. Things like this happen in the tournament, even if this Arizona team was viewed all season long as a prime candidate to make a championship run. The Wildcats hit a red-hot team, and a very good one, and it just so happened to be in the Elite Eight, not the Final Four or the title game.

But what does this season mean? To Sean Miller, this was the best team he's ever coached.

There's now a void to be filled, not only with Gordon leaving -- or any other player who joins him -- but in Arizona fans' hearts.

But this isn't over.

Like last year's loss to Ohio State in the Sweet 16, the projections could make it easy to argue that Arizona is in a better place next season. We're again playing with what-ifs, but these have higher probabilities than those of Saturday night.

If Nick Johnson, Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson return, Arizona will be a year older and much deeper with a five-man recruiting class coming in. The experiences of 2013-14 will linger in their minds. The Wildcats could very well put together another magical season next year, and it's not a dream but a probable reality.

So what was this season?

It's still hard to grasp, but initially, it seems much worse than it did immediately after a heartbreaking loss.

It was called a riot, only because there were riot police. Bullets were pepper balls.

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