The Arizona Wildcats self-imposed a postseason ban on Tuesday, preventing them from playing in the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments this March.
UA basketball seasons are often judged by how far the Wildcats go in the postseason, so what would constitute a successful season for the program now?
Some of our staff members answered.
Brian J. Pedersen
Now that the opportunity to get upset in the first round by an opponent most UA fans have never heard of is off the table, what’s left to play for? Plenty.
First and foremost, a Pac-12 regular season championship, which Arizona last won in 2018. Under Sean Miller the Wildcats have never gone three consecutive seasons without a P12 title.
Re-establishing dominance over ASU is still worth playing for, particularly since the season finale is March 6 against the Sun Devils at McKale Center. Who knows, maybe by then fans will be allowed.
And lastly, there’s plenty to accomplish from an individual level. With nobody on the roster projected to be turning pro after this season, and while there inevitably will be some departures, the rest of this season can be treated like an extended preseason for 2021-22. Whether any/all of the players will buy in to that remains to be seen.
You can’t lose what you never had. That’s the philosophy I’d apply to this group, which entered the fall with little to no experience playing in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the international freshmen may not even understand the significance of March Madness in American sports culture, and to them the postseason ban could feel especially trite. Since college basketball players will receive an extra year of eligibility, the only guy who is probably sure miss out on a future NCAA Tournament is Matt Weyand. And even he might return next year.
With the postseason out of the question, Arizona gets to play with the pressure off a little bit, which might be beneficial for a group of newcomers. In their win Monday night against Colorado, the Wildcats showed they have the upside of a team that can compete for a conference championship. A successful season would mean that Arizona continues to play and practice with the same motivation it showed against the Buffaloes. If the team can continue growing at the pace they’re at, they’ll enter the 2020-21 season as a Pac-12 favorite and perhaps a top-15 team nationally.
Whether Miller and his staff can muster up that kind of motivation is the big question. What’s working in the coaching staff’s favor is that this Arizona roster seems to be more team focused and less individualistic than any group of the last five to six seasons. On top of that, Miller can (and almost certainly will) deliver a narrative to his guys that they’re the victims here, and therefore they should stick it to the NCAA by winning as many games as possible. I think Arizona will ultimately win around 20 games and finish in the top third of the Pac-12.
At this point, the focus should be developing the young talent and winning the Regular-Season Pac-12 Title. It seems like Sean Miller has finally assembled another strong foundation that the program can carry into subsequent seasons.
Winning the regular season crown is a tangible milestone. However, development for players like Christian Koloko, Dalen Terry, Ben Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis is the biggest goal for me. There will also be time for Kerr Kriisa to gain meaningful experience when he becomes eligible in February. Development of these inexperienced players plus the core of Akinjo, Baker and Brown will pay dividends next season.
As you can probably tell, the conference is pretty open this year. Arizona has the chance to play spoiler for some teams who are not only trying win the conference but also make the NCAA tournament. There’s still plenty to be excited about this season despite this self-imposed ban.
The same thing that constituted a successful season before the self-imposed postseason ban.
Obviously knowing that the tournament is completely off the table changes the perspective of the season as it happens, but ultimately this season was never about how far in the tournament the team got.
This season was always about putting in place a foundation for a roster that could contend next season. With many key players expected to be multi-year players, the goal was to show promise in 2020-21 while making a real run in 2021-22. Maybe that promise would have been seen in a good record and tournament berth, and once you get into the dance anything can happen.
A deep March run would have been the cherry on top of a season that was never going to be defined by one (or a lack of one, really).
The team’s fast start gives credence to the thought that the Cats are better than expected and could have been a tournament team, and if they win the conference and look great in doing so there will — and should — be some disappointment in not being able to see them in the postseason.
But in terms of what would make this season a success, the tournament was never a factor in the first place.