Celebrating the Wildcats’ run in the NCAA Tournament

By:
Tom Danehy, Arizona Daily Star photo

The 2014-15 UA basketball season will be remembered as one of the greatest seasons in school history — certainly in the top five, arguably in the top three. 

It might add a bit of perspective if Arizona basketball fans take note of the fact that the 1996-97 Wildcat team that won the only national championship in school history is tied for No. 15 on the list of most wins in a season by a ’Cat squad. 
As a matter of fact, all three of the most recent Sean Miller teams won more games in a year than the national champs, who were 19-7 before catching lightning in a bottle and racing to six straight tournament wins, each more improbable than the last.

The 2014-15 Wildcats amassed the second-highest number of wins in school history. They won the Maui Invitational. They won the Pac-12 regular-season title by a whopping three games and then marched to the school’s first Pac-12 Tournament title in 13 years. Then they reached the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year.

It is the nature of the fan — both casual and hard-core — to remember most how a season ended, especially amid the high drama of the NCAA Tournament. But this was definitely a season to be celebrated in the moment and treasured as the years go by.

Arizona Coach Sean Miller assembled a dynamic team. He was blessed with a senior point guard, a relatively unheard-of proposition these days. T.J. McConnell, who was 23 years old at season’s end, was tough as nails and undoubtedly the team’s MVP. McConnell was joined by a legit seven-footer in junior Kaleb Tarczewski, two hyper-talented sophomore wing players in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley, and the freshman phenom Stanley Johnson. 

The squad steamrolled its opposition, winning 34 games by an average margin of 17 points per game. They also boasted a rebounding edge that approached double digits. Perhaps best of all, they showed a gritty ability to win close games when their collective offensive identity took a hiatus. They pulled out tough games on the road at Stanford and at Utah, against Gonzaga and UCLA at home, in the Pac-12 Tournament against those same Bruins, and in the NCAAs against Ohio State and Xavier.

That the season ended as it did — again in the Elite Eight, against the same Wisconsin team that ousted the ’Cats in 2014 — was disappointing, but nowhere near disheartening. This was not one of those head-scratching early losses that ’Cat fans endured back in the 1990s, nor was it like the epic collapse against Illinois in 2005. This was just one of those magical games that happen from time to time in the NCAA Tournament and, unfortunately for Arizona, the magic was all on the other side. 

After the Wisconsin game, Miller adopted the perfect tone: non-apologetic and borderline combative against the few who would see the entire season as a disappointment based on the outcome of one game. Indeed, this was one of the greatest seasons in Wildcat history, one that solidifies Miller’s reputation as one of the best coaches in America and re-establishes Arizona’s legacy as one of the nation’s top programs. 

Arizona may not win another national championship for a while, but with the combination of coach, facilities, prestige, and fan support, the Wildcats will always be in the hunt.

BACK-TO-BACK 30-WIN SEASONS

As a player in college Sean Miller was equal parts toughness and talent. It’s that toughness — that unwavering, get-out-of-my-way look in his eyes — that endears him to his players, strikes a chord of uneasiness in his opponents, and helps make him one of the best basketball coaches in America today.

After scratching out a winning record his first year, Miller led his second UA team to win 30 games and the Pac-12 regular-season crown. In the NCAA Tournament, they came within two points of reaching the Final Four. 

The past three years, Arizona has averaged more than 30 wins per season, including back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in school history. The ’Cats have finished second, first, and first in the regular season and added the Conference Tournament title this year. And Miller has managed to avoid early exits from the NCAA Tournament, with his last three teams reaching the Sweet 16 and, twice, the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, Miller is perhaps the best recruiter in the country, a vital part of college coaching that sets the Wildcats up for continued dominance. 

Sean Miller is only in his 40s, so his best years — maybe his best decades — are still ahead of him. That’s unsettling news for everybody else out there, but it gives Wildcat fans a warm glow to know that McKale Center will continue rocking for a good long time.