The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team is about to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.
Much has happened with the program since then, and even more has gone down since the last time the Cats were a No. 1 seed, all the way back in 2014.
Back then Arizona seemed destined for the Final Four, if not that year then sometime in the years to come. Sean Miller’s program was rolling, both on and off the court, and it was only a matter of time before he and the Wildcats would finally break through.
He didn’t. They haven’t.
The reasons are vast and not worth rehashing, because that era of Arizona basketball is in the rearview mirror.
These days the Wildcats are back as a top seed, having won 31 games along with the Pac-12 regular-season and conference tournament titles. First-year coach Tommy Lloyd, as well as his players are busy collecting postseason awards, and for better or worse they have become a very popular pick to cut down the nets in New Orleans next month.
In theory it’s better to be a favorite than an underdog, though Arizona fans are quite familiar with the additional stress that comes with being expected to win.
With any luck—hey, there’s a first time for everything—the Wildcats will navigate the South Region to get to the Final Four and, from there, finish with the program’s second national championship.
But should this season end like all but one before it, with the Wildcats falling short of their ultimate goal, it will not change the fact that this has been one of the most enjoyable seasons in program history, and one that could not have come at a better time.
For that, we should be thankful.
Think of where things were just one year ago.
To say Arizona basketball was in a rough spot would be an understatement. The cloud of the NCAA investigation has slowly been lifting, but what kind of damage it will leave in its wake is still unknown. The Cats were coming off a season with a self-imposed postseason ban, there were questions about whether their head coach would—or should—be brought back and it appeared as though Arizona was no longer among the best programs out West.
The only thing to hold onto was a perceived upgrade in talent, which if you look back at our staff grades from early March 2021, one prescient writer pointed out:
“Give the bulk of the roster a full offseason, bringing with it time to get stronger and better, and you have the makings of a team that could be really, really good when it takes the court again in 2021. The goal is to contend for titles, and while this year’s team did not it may have set the stage for next year’s to do exactly that.”
Spoiler alert: That writer was me.
But even while I was bullish on the team’s prospects of improving, not even I will pretend to have predicted what we’ve seen.
Maybe you thought Lloyd was a great hire, but you couldn’t have known his system would be so perfect for and quickly pick up by the team.
Perhaps you saw the talent and figured with an offseason of growth it would be good enough to contend with the best in the country. Yet, growth is neither guaranteed nor linear, so the fact that virtually every player not only progressed but took leaps forward—both before the season and during it—is quite remarkable.
Even if you accounted for all that, the idea that Arizona would lose just three games while winning 25 by at least 10 points (with 16 of those by 20 or more) surely never entered your mind as being possible. Arizona’s offense is among the very best in the country while its defense is nothing to sneeze at. The Cats play an aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball with a worldly roster that is impossible not to like.
Except for Kerr Kriisa. He’s easy not to like if you’re a fan of Arizona’s opponent.
But that’s part of this team’s charm and yet another reason why we should be appreciative of the group, no matter how this season ultimately ends. It has made Arizona basketball fun again, and not just because it wins a lot.
Though, that helps too.
There is now an undeniable feeling that the program is once again on an upswing. Their ascension to the top happened sooner than anticipated, and given the ways rosters turn over there is no guarantee it will be permanent. That’s why, of course, this tournament is so important.
Despite the unexpected nature of this season, Arizona is very much a national championship contender. Other than inexperience, the Wildcats enter the dance with no apparent exploitable weakness.
They have shooting, size, athleticism and depth. Their coaches has proven masterful at getting the most out of the team, with in-game adjustments not going unnoticed. They play with a confidence, too, and any questions about their resilience and fight were answered in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Despite being unranked before the season, Arizona has very much proven itself to be among the nation’s very best teams. They are heading into the NCAA Tournament a deserving favorite, both of the oddsmakers and basketball fans alike.
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