March 19, 2006

(NCAA Tournament)
(UA 94, Wisconsin 75)
(Villanova 82, UA 78)

A strange Arizona basketball season concludes with a strange feeling: Peace.

I'm happy with how things ended. There was no moping when we were eliminated. I'm not angry at anyone. I'm almost relieved we can finally put this year behind us.

This team started with high expectations, then they scared us into low expectations, then they settled on average expectations, and--to their credit--they met them. So the 2006 Wildcats were an average success.

To top it off, on one Friday morning on a national stage, the Cats finally put it all together. Sure, it only lasted one game, but the Wisconsin win was a refreshing reminder of what we're used to seeing from Arizona hoops and it's an image we can hold onto as we look forward to next year.

When we went live at 10:30 a.m. Tucson time on Friday, you knew things were going to be better as soon as you saw the return of Kirk Walters' beard.

Actually, we shouldn't have worried one bit about this game. After all, we've never lost as an 8-seed. True, we now have one whole win as an 8-seed but let's not split hairs.

Bret Brielmaier is clearly comfortable with the Midwest style of ball. A career-high 10 points on perfect 3-3 shooting from the floor and 4-4 from the free throw line, plus a career-high 8 rebounds. He was the top rebounder in the entire game! I guess when Bret Brielmaier joked about Wisconsin being a team of Bret Brielmaiers he was actually putting down Bret Brielmaier.

In other tournament news, I know he helped kick our butt three times, and he stole Marcus Williams' Freshman of the Year Award, but isn't it fun to say "MMM-bah ah MOO-tay"? It's like a cross between a Hansen song and Old MacDonald.

I appreciate things you can count on. It's good to see the new Kansas coach is just like the old Kansas coach.

On one of my not-just-for-fun brackets I got 7 out 8 games right in the first round of the Minneapolis region. Guess which game I missed? Let's just say it was the happiest X I marked all weekend.

Take comfort, Big Ten fans: At least you won't have to take down any Final Four banners for this year.

Reality struck for the Arizona Wildcats in the second round but it shouldn't have surprised anyone. As expected, this game was a full 180 degrees from Wisconsin. Villanova's quickness effectively rendered useless Ivan Radenovic (only 10 points, no trips to the free throw line), Kirk Walters (7 minutes, no points, 1 rebound) and surprisingly, even Chris Rodgers (15 minutes, no points, 1 steal).

Ivan did gut it out for 35 minutes, which was actually a shorter workday than Marcus Williams (37 minutes), Hassan Adams (37 minutes) and Mustafa Shakur (39 minutes). Nice effort by our four-man marathon team.

This game just came down to simple math: three is more than two. Both teams made exactly 28 field goals. Both teams made exactly 17 free throws. But their Wildcats made 9 three-pointers and our Wildcats only made 5. This doesn't shock anybody in the Arizona camp but it does say our guys did very well to make it a game at the end.

Heck, our guys did very well to make those 5 threes! Mustafa had 4 of them (he sure does like playing in his home town). The big oops is Marcus Williams going 0-6 from deep. The freshman played a great game in every other way: 24 points, 6-12 from two-point-land, an exceptional 12-15 from the free throw line, and a team-leading 8 boards. Even if just 2 of his threes go in he has 30 points and maybe we can pull this out. So it goes. I have no doubt Marcus will have another chance to be a big Wildcat hero.

One-Eye Ray (25 points) outplayed One-Arm Adams (20 points). Hassan continued to favor that left shoulder all week, most noticeably when he put down the two breakaway dunks right-handed. Was he really hurt that bad, or was it a mental hurdle he couldn't get over?

You can add another "worst since" to this year's team's resume: 13 losses is the most an Arizona team has had since 1984 (Lute's first year here).

But it's time to move on. If you're looking for fresh starts for the future, start here: At the exact moment the final buzzer sounded on Sunday, our roster no longer contained any players who have been in trouble with the law or removed from the team.

Another positive has been the marked improvement of Mustafa Shakur over the past six weeks. With his final 5 assists of the season on Sunday, Mustafa quietly moved past Sean Elliot and tied Miles Simon for 9th place on the UA career assists list with 455. Over his final 10 games, Shakur had 61 assists (that's 6.1 a game if you can't move the decimal) against only 24 turnovers, a ratio of better than 2.5-to-1. If I'm Lute I challenge Staf to lead the Pac-10 in assists next year. If he can we're going to score a lot of points and win a lot of games.

The best news for '06-'07 is that this year's biggest weakness by far was a lack of three-point shooting and we add three shooters to the rotation next year: a (hopefully) recovered Jawann McClellan, and freshmen Chase Budinger and Nic Wise. Go ahead and get very optimistic about the future.

Go ahead and get comfortable with the present too. Here are the Arizona Wildcat streaks still alive:

22 straight NCAA tournament appearances
22 straight Pac-10 seasons with at least 11 conference wins
19 straight 20-win seasons

By the way, what the heck kind of non-conference schedule did Lute play in 1987? We went 13-5 and finished 2nd in Pac-10 play, but we were 5-5 out of conference and finished with only 18 wins. Schedule a couple more cupcakes and that streak would be at 22 as well.

So now what do we do? You've still got two UA men's sports to follow: spring football (practice starts March 27 and ends with the spring game on April 22) and baseball. To get things going with the latter I'll be taking in a ballgame this Sunday, which just happens to be my birthday.

That's right, it's a UA Baseball Birthday Party and you all are invited. Please, refrain from showering me with presents, but you do have to buy your own ticket for $5. You'll also have to pay for your own peanuts and Cracker Jack. But I did hook you up with free parking in the garage across the street from Kindall Field. Just tell them you're with Stallion, and they'll have no idea what you're talking about. (But seriously, parking is free.)

So if you're not in mourning on Sunday about what happened last year on March 26 (yes, my birthday is now the anniversary of the Shame in Chicago), head on over to campus and say hi to the guy in the red cowboy hat. I don't want anyone to sing "Happy Birthday" but I will be asking everyone to join me in singing "Bear Down" every time we score a run.

Wildcat Peace be with you.

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