You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Or, in the case of the Arizona Wildcats, you are both the hero and the villain, depending on who is judging.
This became clear prior to Arizona’s first-round game against Wright State, when a reporter asked of either Dalen Terry, Benn Mathurin or Justin Kier, “Do you guys win a ton of games because you’re cocky or are you cocky because you won a lot of games.”
The reporter alluded to Terry’s propensity to engage with the crowd and Kerr Kriisa’s to engage with everybody in prefacing the question.
Was it a good question? No, as there were plenty of other not-terrible ways to phrase it.
However, it was a sign of the kind of team Arizona is viewed as: a talented contender to win a national championship that is unafraid of who it may offend along the way.
The narrative got even stronger following the team’s gritty win over TCU, after which a handful of players had some fun with the crowd and Mathurin was allegedly caught making unacceptable contact with a member of the Horned Frogs’ cheer squad.
He didn’t do anything of the sort, but apologized for the incident anyway. There’s nothing wrong with that, though neither the apology nor the facts will satiate those who refuse to believe Arizona is anything but the villain.
It’s a role the Wildcats are, if not embracing, seeming to be having fun with.
With “Bad Boy For Life” playing, Arizona practices at AT&T Center. pic.twitter.com/XhuQTwQd1l— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) March 23, 2022
The funny thing about it all is the Wildcats are less villainous than they are just a bunch of high-level college athletes who love the game they’re playing and have a blast playing that game with each other.
The surprising nature of their success, coming on the heels of a 2020-21 season that dragged to a quiet finish due to a self-imposed postseason ban, has likely only increased their desire to really, truly enjoy the moment.
And honestly, is that really so bad?
Arizona is not a team that cheap shots opponents or commits unnecessarily hard fouls, nor is it one that has really come close to any kind of shoving matches or fights on the floor. The Wildcats play a beautiful style of basketball, scoring plenty of points and oftentimes essentially running opponents out of the gym.
The blocked shots and high-flying dunks can be demoralizing to an opponent, but you can’t blame the Wildcats for being good.
Now, do they trash talk? Yes, but find me a team that doesn’t have players who make it known when things are going well.
For example, in last Sunday’s game TCU’s Eddie Lampkin, who was pretty dominant, gave the “too small” gesture at least a couple of times after making strong plays down low.
No one is criticizing him, though, or asking about his cockiness. Why not?
Well, TCU lost the game but offered a valiant effort in facing off against the big, bad Wildcats, who many probably still believe are a team that cheats to win.
It’s a little unfortunate that Arizona isn’t more well-liked on a national level. The team shares the basketball like so few do, the roster itself represents more countries than many of us could accurately locate on a map and they were unranked in the preseason.
On that last point, according to the folks at KenPom Arizona winning two more games and making it to the Final Four would be historic.
See America, you should be rooting for the Wildcats because they are actually an underdog in sheep’s clothing!
That probably won’t work in making the Cats more likeable.
Whereas the 2017-18 Wildcats may have had an “us against the world” mentality after all that went on that season, this year’s squad likely feels the inverse.
On Wednesday, the day before Arizona’s Sweet 16 matchup with Houston, the team’s starters were asked about their affinity for having fun with opposing fans. Naturally, and comically, everyone looked to Kriisa for an answer.
“We’re just trying to win the game,” he said. “It just comes with it. It’s not that I’m looking forward to waving to Houston fans or stuff like this. We’re just trying to win the game and if we do win the game then we’re going to let them know that we won the game.
“And if we lose then we’re going to shake their hand and say ‘good game’ and try to be back next year.”
Kriisa’s teammate Terry added his own thoughts.
“When we win the game it’s not nothing personal with the other team’s crowd,” he said. “We a team, we just goofy. We all young and goofy. We just like to have fun. We just want to win the game, for real.”
Their enjoyment has led to others’ resentment. Yet, in becoming the “bad boys” of college basketball Arizona has likely found a bit of a rallying cry, something to not only bond over but also strive for. Celebrating and trash talking are fun, but neither are on the table if you lose the game.
Arizona has won a lot of games this season, and at this time is hoping to win four more. The celebration after that last one would surely be something.