A fun/painful game that Arizona fans occasionally like to play involves thinking about what might have been had Brandon Ashley not broke his foot midway through the 2013-14 season.
His absence down the stretch was evident, as a 21-0 start was followed by a 12-5 finish, but the Wildcats still made the Elite Eight and were seconds away from reaching the Final Four.
But there’s a far more uncertain—and recent—What If? scenario for UA fans to ponder: How would the Wildcats have done in the 2020 NCAA Tournament had the COVID-19 pandemic not shut everything down?
“We feel like we’re peaking at the right time and I think things we were really starting to click for us and we’re gonna make a good run,” Zeke Nnaji, the leading scorer and rebounder from that team, said Saturday before his induction into Arizona’s Ring of Honor. “I still think about a lot, even when I meet up with my former teammates. We still talk about it to this day and just reminisce and think about what could have been. But it’s an academic exercise at this point.”
Nnaji was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year for a UA team that began the 2019-20 season ranked and climbed to as high as No. 12 in the AP poll after a 9-0 start. But while Nnaji, wing Josh Green and point guard Nico Mannion formed a dangerous trio of freshmen, the Wildcats ended up losing six of their next 10 games capped by a collapse at ASU in which they led by 22 only to fall by one to the Sun Devils.
Arizona also dropped four of its last five regular-season games, including the finale at home to last-place Washington. But despite that, a 20-11 record was likely good enough to get it into the NCAA Tournament as long as it didn’t lose its first Pac-12 game (also against Washington).
The UA responded to the UW loss with a 77-70 win over the Huskies in Las Vegas. Green had 19 points, his most against a Pac-12 opponent, and though it was only one game it felt a bit like a switch had been flipped for the Wildcats.
“We feel like we’re on great momentum, and everybody’s really positive,” Green recalled last week, prior to his Ring of Honor induction.
During that game, though, an announcement was made over the public address system at T-Mobile Arena that the following day’s Pac-12 tourney games would be played without fans. It was the first sign, at least locally, that something bad was going on.
“If that’s the decision, I’m sure it’s very well thought out and it’s in the best interests of these guys,” UA coach Sean Miller said afterward. “And at the end of the day, that’s what counts the most, to protect our players and student-athletes to the best of our ability. And I’m sure that decision was one that was hard to make, but we’ll show up. And if we’re part of that (NCAA) tournament, I don’t think it will affect our effort. Clearly it will be different for everybody that’s a part of it.”
Less than 24 hours later, not only was the rest of the Pac-12 Tournament called off, so were every other conference tourney and, eventually, March Madness itself.
“It was a whole bunch of roller coaster of emotions,” Green said last week. “We go from beating Washington and playing an amazing game … to the next day being told that the season’s done. I didn’t really know what to think of it. It took me a week or so to be able to think it through.”
Green, Mannion and Nnaji all declared for the NBA Draft not long after. The first two were expected to be one-and-done players before they arrived at Arizona, but Nnaji had such a monster season his draft stock went through the roof and resulted in him going 22nd overall to the Denver Nuggets.
“The fact that it ended that way, I never got to play in a NCAA Tournament, is definitely a bummer,” Nnaji said. “But I’m still grateful for for the experience and for the journey.”
So, how might Arizona have done in the Big Dance?
While there was no 2020 NCAA tourney, there were still projections for that tourney. And at the time of its cancellation, the consensus was that the Wildcats would be a No. 7 seed, though projections on BracketMatrix.com ranged from No. 5 to No. 9.
Assuming a 7th seed happened, the UA would have opened against Indiana, Oklahoma or Texas Tech (the fourth projected No. 10 seed, per BracketMatrix, was ASU). Since the NCAA selection committee loves narratives, the Wildcats probably would have played the Hoosiers to create a brother vs. brother storyline of Sean and Archie Miller.
That Indiana squad also started out hot, like Arizona, going 8-0 but then finishing below .500 in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers also played on the unofficial last day of the 2019-20 season, blowing out Nebraska 89-64 in a game that was most memorable for how sick Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg (who was later diagnosed with the flu) looked on the bench:
Fred Hoiberg was taken to the hospital after looking physically ill on the bench pic.twitter.com/bHgpcFjRwQ— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 12, 2020
If Arizona beat Indiana it would have almost certainly ended up facing a No. 2 seed in the second round, someone from the projected quartet of Creighton, Florida State, San Diego State or Villanova. SDSU began that season 26-0, while Creighton and Villanova tied for the Big East regular-season title and FSU won the ACC.
The Wildcats would have been an underdog to all of those schools, and probably by a significant amount. But if the potential they showed at times during the 2019-20 campaign all came together, this could have been another Sweet 16 run if not further.
Instead, 2020 ended up as the middle of a 3-year run in which Arizona didn’t play in the postseason, with Miller’s final season one that included a self-imposed ban due to the ongoing NCAA investigation that has since been resolved. Miller was let go on April 7, 2021 after 12 seasons and 302 wins (50-plus of which have been vacated, along with some Pac-12 Tourney titles and the 2017-18 regular-season crown) and a week later Tommy Lloyd was hired.
Lloyd is 57-8 with Arizona, two wins shy of the most by anyone in their first two seasons as a head coach, and the Wildcats are looking at back-to-back Top 2 NCAA tourney seeds since 2014 and 2015. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the UA is +1400 to win the national title (tied with UCLA for fifth-best odds) and +330 to reach its first Final Four since 2001.
So maybe spending too much time on What If? isn’t such a good idea.