Exit Strategy

April 3, 2006

(at Cal 3, UA 2)
(UA 5, at Cal 1)
(at Cal 5, UA 4 - 13 innings)
(UA 12, at ASU 8 - Chase Field)

March Madness brought April Blowouts and college basketball is done for another year.

But first a quick baseball update. Thanks to rain and darkness in Berkeley, it took the Cats four days to add two more one-run losses. We did win the middle game to salvage one victory in the first Pac-10 series of the season.

The weekend ended on a very high note however with a 12-8 victory over the Sun Devils on Sunday. The Wildcat bats came alive early as ASU's Mesa set the table and we milked Arreola for a combined 6 runs in 2 innings. The Devils came all the way back to take a 2-run lead into the 8th before Arizona freshman David Plante hit a grand slam to cap off a 7-RBI day. If we're going to hit like this, I hope every team we face from now on wears ugly yellow jerseys.


When one's team has been eliminated from the NCAA basketball tournament, one has time to ponder philosophical issues. Who feels worse, Washington for losing in the Sweet Sixteen, or UCLA for making it all the way to the championship game before bowing out? Which round is the absolute worst to lose in?

The mathematical (and those paid to coach) will tell us if you have to lose it's better to lose in the final game, because 5 wins are more than 4, and so on. But we emotional residents of fandom know better.

Those who truly care about their teams know not all losses are created equal. When, how, and against whom all factor into which defeats will linger in the painful corners of our memory.

This list will focus on the "when" of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. It will go from "oh well" losses to "dive headfirst into a well" disasters. We'll be looking at things from the prospective of a higher seed, say, 1 through 5. In other words, the teams with realistic chances of going far in the tournament. There isn't much room for argument from the "just happy to be here" or "nothing to lose" crowd. We're all about big-time losing today.

The easiest round to lose in is the third round. You have two tournament wins, which assures you of a winning record. You got to enjoy another week of being a part of the festivities. Big-shot boosters got to visit a second city and tournament venue. Unless you're a 1 or 2-seed, you were an underdog when you were sent packing. Just a nice casual March experience.

You want proof? Name the last year Arizona lost in the third round. You had to think for a minute, but you may have remembered it was 2002 (when we got blown out by Oklahoma the year after we had the mass exodus to the NBA draft). Now for the real test. When was the last time we lost in the Sweet Sixteen before that?

Now I got you. It was 1996 and we lost by 3 to Kansas. I've never heard anyone complain about 1996, and now we know why.

The second easiest round to lose in is the second round. You don't have the embarrassment of a first round loss but you haven't been around long enough to get your hopes up. This year's Wildcat squad is the perfect example. I think we're all going to look back on our one win of 2006 a lot more fondly than we'll regret the one loss.

It's a little different if you're on the wrong end of a big upset in the second round, like when we lost in a 1-vs-8 game in 2000. But even then you're usually able to look back and say, "If we weren't good enough to win that game (due to things like our starting center being injured), we probably weren't going to last much longer anyway." Excuses are a beautiful thing.

The third easiest round to lose in is the fifth round, i.e., the Final Four. You got to enjoy a week of full media hype. You still get to keep all the memorabilia. Big shots got to be seen at the Super Bowl of College Sports. All four teams are really good so there's rarely any shame in a loss. This is especially true if you go down to a great team, like when we lost to the 1994 Arkansas Razorbacks who won the title and made it back to the championship game the next year.

You think in a month George Mason fans are going to care that they lost to Florida? Heck, they were probably over it by the time they were back in their hotel room. They will never be able to take a Final Four away from you (unless you're one of those "clean" programs from the Big "Ten").

Next up on the list is the first round. This is where the taunting comes in. One-and-done. You waited a whole year for the Big Dance and you threw out your back during the first song. You lose extra points if you're in a Thursday game because the ink on your bracket isn't even dry and you're already depressed.

This is the round where exaggerations are born and false reputations are formed, such as Lute Olson being a bad tournament coach and "Arizona always loses in the first round." The facts are that the Cats have only been upset in round one once in the past decade (1999). Even if you want to count 2004 when we were a 9-seed, Lute is on a 9-2 (82%) first round run. The days of East Tennessee State and Santa Clara are gone, but the fact that we can still rattle off those names emphasizes the pain of losing in this round.

The fifth easiest (or second worst) round to lose in is the fourth round. No one makes Elite Eight t-shirts. There's no eliteeight.net. You had a very good team but don't have anything to show for it. Major bonus points if you blow a 15-point lead with 4 minutes to play and an 8-point lead with 1 minute to go. Uuuuuugh.

Even though losing like we did in 2005 would hurt no matter when it happened, it would've been much easier to swallow if we already had a Final Four banner wrapped up. And the only round where a loss like that would hurt even more is the worst of them all….

The Championship Game. Yes, you won 5 tournament games. Yes, you still have your Final Four appearance to fall back on. Yes, you made it to the very last day of the basketball season. But there is a huge difference between winning a championship and coming in second. Sixty-four tournament teams end their season with a loss but there's only one trophy. There's a reason they call it "winning it all." There's nothing else for the losers.

I will always shake my head when I think back to 2001. Look at it this way: If we had beaten Duke that day, Lute Olson would have won just as many titles as Mr. Everywhere You Want To Be, Coach K. But as it stands now, Duke is one of only 5 schools to have won more than 2 championships, and Krzyzewski became only the fourth coach ever to cut down the nets 3 times. If I could have one year, one game back, it would be that final game of 2001.

Fair or not, that's how the world of athletics works. You've got the take advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves. Lots of people can be very good. But to be truly great, you have to win championships.

All that said, the absolute worst scenario is not making the field of 65. 'Tis better to have played and lost than to have sat on your butt at home. And in that regard, with 22 straight NCAA bids and counting, Coach O is the best around.

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