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Some big ‘what ifs?’ in recent Arizona Wildcats history

NIT Season Tip-Off - Duke v Arizona Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

This week is “What If?” Week at SB Nation, so I have compiled some of the biggest Arizona Wildcats “what ifs?” that I have been around for.

I picked one from each of the major sports and, as you can see, most of them are relatively recent, so I encourage our more seasoned readers to leave their hypotheticals in the comment section below.

What if Brandon Ashley didn’t break his foot in 2013-14?

Arizona was 21-0 and the No. 1 team in the country before Ashley broke his foot at Cal on Feb. 1, 2014, what turned out to be UA’s first loss when Justin Cobbs hit an off-balanced jumper at the buzzer.

The Wildcats had plenty of talent to fall back on, but Ashley’s absence was notable. They went 12-5 without him, his injury sapping them of an 11-and-6 power forward, frontcourt depth, and one of their better shooters.

Those are all important factors when you consider Arizona finished 291st in the country in bench minutes, 305th in free throw shooting and 83rd in 3-point shooting, per KenPom.

And as we saw in March, every point matters.

Arizona led No. 2 seed Wisconsin by as many as eight in the first half of the Elite Eight but lost 64-63 in overtime. The Wildcats could not survive a 28-point barrage by Frank Kaminsky, who was unguardable on the block.

Would having Ashley’s length and another pair of fresh legs made a difference? Maybe. Kaminsky did torch the Wildcats for 29 points in the Elite Eight the following year and that time Ashley was healthy.

Still, Arizona shot 39 percent in the first matchup and had virtually no presence behind the 3-point line, going 5 for 13 the entire night. In a game that was decided by one measly point, one more basket would have sent the Wildcats to the Final Four and finally ended the drought that still exists today.

The program’s image, Sean Miller’s image, would be far different than it is now, and it’s very possible the 2013-14 squad would be regarded as the best team in UA history regardless of what it did after a win over Wisconsin (and many Arizona fans insist the Wildcats would have won the national championship if Ashley were healthy.)

Even without him for half the season, the Wildcats finished No. 2 in KenPom’s ratings, the highest in program history since those became a thing in 2001-02. Arizona’s defense was, by far, the best in the country.

What if Cody Ramer was called safe in the 2016 College World Series championship game?

Speaking of games decided by slim margins, the Wildcats lost games two and three of the 2016 College World Series championship series by one run. A different call could have changed the outcome and resulted in Arizona baseball’s fifth national championship (and second in five years.)

In the winner-takes-all game three against Coastal Carolina, UA shortstop Cody Ramer bolted for home plate on a comebacker and was called out even though replay appeared to show that he beat the catcher’s tag.

Had the call gone the other way, Arizona would have taken a 1-0 lead in the third and had the run they needed when they stranded two runners in the bottom of the ninth in an eventual 4-3 loss.

Also: teams that scored first in the College World Series that year were 14-3. Coastal Carolina wound up striking first by scoring four runs in the sixth. All four were unearned and one was the result of a pair of errors (on the same play) by Ramer who hadn’t made an error in 17 straight games.

That was Jay Johnson’s first season at Arizona, and things have only gone downhill since, with the Wildcats missing the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and 2019.

What if Khalil Tate was Arizona’s starting quarterback for the entire 2017 season?

Before Khalil Tate subbed in for an injured Brandon Dawkins and ran for a FBS quarterback record 327 yards in a 45-42 win at Colorado, the start of a remarkable four-game stretch in which Arizona went 4-0 and Tate won four straight Pac-12 Player of the Week awards, the Wildcats were struggling.

They entered Boulder 2-2 with one-score home losses to Houston and Utah. Arizona notched a combined 40 points in those two games. With Tate, it reached the 40-point mark in five of his eight starts. In two others, the Wildcats scored 35.

So what if Tate had gotten the nod against Houston and Utah instead of Dawkins? With a more dynamic offense, Arizona wins those games and all of a sudden you’re talking about an eight-, nine- or maybe even 10-win season instead of a 7-6 record.

Does Arizona part ways Rich Rodriguez after that? It’s doubtful, even with that sexual harassment allegation. He was fired without cause.

What if Arizona softball held on against Baylor in 2017?

With elite players all over the diamond, Arizona softball was the No. 2 overall seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. It breezed through Regionals and won the first game of a best-of-three Super Regional against No. 15 Baylor on a bases loaded, walk-off single by then-freshman Jessie Harper.

That left Arizona one win away from making its first Women’s College World Series since 2010, but it fell agonizingly short.

In game two, the Wildcats led 4-2 in the bottom of the sixth when Baylor plated four runs after three two-out hits off Danielle O’Toole, who had just relieved Taylor McQuillin.

In game three, the Wildcats led 5-3 in the seventh when Shelby McGlaun lifted a game-winning three-run homer off McQuillin, who had just relieved O’Toole. (It was a rough series when it came to pitching substitutions.)

If the Wildcats close either one of those games out, who’s to say they don’t win a national championship? They went 52-9 that year and didn’t have any weaknesses.

Another “what if?” from the 2017 season: What if star center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza didn’t tear her ACL right before Regionals?

What if Mike Neighbors and Aari McDonald stayed at Washington?

After leading Washington to the Sweet Sixteen in 2016-17, head coach Mike Neighbors left to be the new coach at Arkansas, his alma mater.

That caused Aari McDonald, a member of the Pac-12 All-Freshman team, to leave Seattle after one season and transfer to Arizona to rejoin Adia Barnes, a former UW assistant who had recruited McDonald to the Huskies.

In two seasons with the Wildcats, McDonald has been the driving force behind the program’s meteoric rise—setting school scoring records and emerging as the top defender in the Pac-12.

With McDonald running the point, the Wildcats finished the coronavirus-shortened 2019-20 season No. 12 in the AP poll, their highest finish since 1997-98.

How they would have fared in the NCAA Tournament is another “what if?” but it being canceled is partly why McDonald is returning for her redshirt senior year and will be a National Player of the Year candidate on a team that should be a Final Four contender.

Thanks, Mike!

What if Arizona soccer completed the comeback against Tennessee in 2018?

Samantha Falasco and Kennedy Kieneker scored two minutes apart to pull Arizona even with No. 2 seed Tennessee 2-2 in the 80th minute of a second-round NCAA Tournament game, stunning the home crowd in Knoxville.

The Wildcats nearly forced overtime, but Tennessee’s Danielle Marcano knocked in a corner kick with 55 seconds left in regulation to lead the Vols to the Sweet Sixteen.

Had Arizona completed the comeback, it would have advanced to just its third-ever Sweet Sixteen in program history and first since 2015. Also: the Wildcats would have faced No. 3 seed Texas A&M in Knoxville (a neutral site) two days later with a chance to reach their first-ever Elite Eight.

That’s a pretty sweet matchup considering Arizona soccer’s road to the Elite Eight almost always goes through Stanford, and beating the Cardinal is virtually impossible.

For what it’s worth, Texas A&M wound up losing to Tennessee 3-0.