The Arizona Wildcats season did not have an ending but it did produce plenty of memorable moments along the way, both good and bad.
For now, we will take a look at the good ones. Here they are in chronological order. Feel free to fill me in on any that you think I’m missing.
Freshmen destroy Illinois
If there was ever a game that illustrated how high Arizona’s ceiling was, this was it. The Wildcats absolutely demolished what turned out to be a very solid Illinois team, running-and-gunning their way to a 90-69 victory in McKale Center.
Arizona’s freshmen led the way, posting these gaudy stat lines, looking like the best guard-wing-big trio in the country:
- Nico Mannion: 21 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 8-14 FG, 1-3 3PT
- Josh Green: 22 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 8-14 FG, 4-7 3PT
- Zeke Nnaji: 19 points, 5 rebounds, 9-12 FG
It didn’t feel like a major win at the time since Illinois was coming off a lackluster season, but it wound up being arguably the best game the Wildcats played all year, and maybe their best win. Too bad it was only November.
Nico’s game-winner vs. Pepperdine
Arizona went 3-7 in games decided by five or fewer points, a reason it only went 21-11, but it won the first one thanks to a game-winning runner by Nico Mannion in Anaheim.
Tied at 91-all with 7.6 seconds left, Mannion caught an inbounds and darted coast-to-coast, before kissing a right-handed floater off the glass over multiple defenders to seal the win over Pepperdine.
“There’s no one that can draw up a play like that,” assistant coach Jack Murphy said that night. “It’s just innate ability.”
Unfortunately, Mannion could not recapture that late-game magic at other points in the season, missing potential game-winning floaters from a nearly identical spot against Oregon and St. John’s.
Anaheim Dylan leads Arizona to a Wooden Legacy championship
Dylan Smith’s Arizona career was filled with plenty of ups and downs, but there was no greater height than when he put it all together for three games in Anaheim, helping the Wildcats win the Wooden Legacy tournament.
Smith averaged 15.3 PPG in the wins over Pepperdine, Penn and Wake Forest, while shooting 13 for 21 from the field and 8 for 13 from 3. (Only two turnovers too!)
It was the only time all season that Smith scored in double figures in three straight games, hence the moniker Anaheim Dylan. A true legend.
Christian Koloko’s behind-the-back pass highlights a breakout game at Baylor
Arizona had a forgettable day in Waco, shooting 27 percent and committing 16 turnovers in a 63-58 loss to Baylor.
But if there was a bright spot in that game, it was Koloko, who had three points, two blocks and two assists in 12 minutes. That might not sound like much, but it was his first action against a high-caliber team, and the moment wasn’t too big for him.
“The one thing he didn’t do is rebound, but just kind of evaluating his 12-minute segment, I don’t know how many were really there for him to get,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after that game. “It’s not like he struck out. But he had two assists, no turnovers and he actually blocked three shots. I think the stat sheet might have had him for two, but he did block three. We also had him for two other (shots) that he legitimately affected the miss. So in 12 minutes [Baylor] went 0 for 5 because of him.”
Koloko also had the play of the day, maybe even the season, when he bounced a behind-the-back pass to Chase Jeter for a slam, what Miller called “one of the best passes that I’ve seen a big man have.”
Koloko’s defense is far ahead of his offense at that point, but it was a big step toward him emerging as the first big off the bench by season’s end.
CHRISTIAN KOLOKO BEHIND THE BACK PASS pic.twitter.com/azOdmna8QC— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) December 7, 2019
The ASU blowout that repaired Arizona’s Achilles heel
After wrapping up non-conference play with a disappointing loss to St. John’s, the Wildcats appeared to have turned a corner when they routed the Arizona State Sun Devils 75-47 to open the Pac-12 season.
It was an especially satisfying win because the Wildcats patched what had been their “Achilles heel” at the time—defensive rebounding. Arizona won the rebounding battle 49-35, and wound up being pretty great in that area the rest of the season, posting a Pac-12-best 76.2 defensive rebounding percentage in conference play.
However, new problems arose in the Pacific Northwest the next weekend when the Wildcats were swept by OSU and Oregon.
Hazzardous conditions vs. Utah
Fitting the theme of a roller coaster season, Arizona returned home from that disappointing trip to Oregon and absolutely annihilated Utah in McKale Center, 93-77.
This was the Max Hazzard game. The grad transfer awoke from a slumber in a big way, exploding for 24 points off the bench. He swished six of his 10 3-point attempts, showing a lightning-quick release and unlimited range.
It wound up being his highest scoring outing as a Wildcat by a pretty wide margin. His second-best night came against Oregon State on Feb. 20 when he dropped 15 points against the Beavers.
The Ira Lee chants vs. Colorado
The pounding of the Mountain schools continued two days later when the Wildcats outmuscled a ranked Colorado team, 75-54.
Ira Lee ignited a dominant rebounding effort that saw the Wildcats compile a 39-25 margin on the glass against a formidable Colorado frontcourt. The junior played a season-high 26 minutes, grabbed seven rebounds and threw down a few thunderous dunks.
His reward? A chorus of “I-ra Lee, I-ra Lee” chants from the McKale Center crowd.
“Love it, man,” he said afterward. “I’ve been here for three years, I’ve worked hard, worked hard with my teammates, coaches always believed in me, so it’s just beautiful to hear that. It’s beautiful to hear that with a win too.”
Baker’s big night in Seattle
It took a while for the Wildcats to seize their first road win, but they finally got it done on Jan. 30 when they downed Washington 75-72 in Seattle.
Jemarl Baker Jr. sealed the deal by scoring 14 of his career-high 17 points in the second half, at one point pouring in six straight points—three free throws and a 3—to flip a 69-64 deficit into a 70-69 lead with 4:17 left.
He wasn’t done.
After UW went ahead late, Baker swished a go-ahead 3 from the wing with 42.6 seconds left, and the Wildcats led the rest of the way.
Jemarl Baker had a career-high 17 points, including 14 in the second half to lead Arizona past Washington for its first road win.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 31, 2020
This 3 proved to be the game-winner: pic.twitter.com/AV2IQt6RUb
The other storyline here was that, by hitting a clutch shot, Baker paid tribute to his idol Kobe Bryant in a fitting way. Bryant died in a helicopter crash just a few days earlier.
“He definitely inspired me to want to be great,” Baker said that week. “And I think watching him has helped me get to where I am now.”
The sweep at Stanford
Once Arizona won its first road game, the victories away from McKale started coming in bunches. First a sweep in Washington, then another in the Bay Area.
The Wildcats looked like the team to beat in the Pac-12 after a wire-to-wire 69-60 win over Stanford in Palo Alto. Arizona didn’t shoot well that night, which actually made the victory even more impressive because they proved they can win in other ways. The Wildcats made their free throws, won the rebounding battle, and saw their defense outplay Stanford’s elite unit.
The W improved Arizona to 8-4 in the conference with four of their last six at home. Unfortunately, the Wildcats went 2-4 in that stretch, tanking their shot at a Pac-12 title.
Ending the season with a W
We’ll never know how Arizona would have fared in the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments because of the coronavirus, but they did end its season with a win for the first time since the 1997 national championship year by beating Washington 77-70 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Arizona turned in one of its most complete games of the season—they even held on to a second-half lead!—and it might have been Green’s best outing as Wildcat, logging 19 points, four rebounds, three assists, and two steals, while burying a trio of 3s.
Given how inconsistent this team was it wouldn’t be right to assume that it was on the verge of a magical March run. After all, Arizona had been losers of four of its last five entering the postseason.
At the same time, there is no doubt Arizona had some covetable talent and could have done special things in the NCAA Tournament if all the pieces fell into place when it mattered most.