Hoop Status

June 11, 2006

Next spring will be the 10-year anniversary of our basketball National Championship.

That's right, when I put in my Greatest Hits of 1997 CD, and the Spice Girls ask me to tell them what I want, what I really really want, it'll be ten years old.

And we've only been to one Final Four since.

Facts like this and poor showings in two of the last three years make one ask the most difficult question: Is our basketball program in a state of decline?

The easy answer is yes. From 1991 to 2001 we never went more than four years without a trip to the Final Four. Since then we're at five years and counting.

But every coin has two sides and this one does as well. One could also say Lute is actually at the top of his game right now. Say what now? Well, you point at 2004 and 2006 as uncharacteristically bad years. What about the Pac-10 champion/Elite Eight teams of 2003 and 2005?

How many other times have we had two Elite Eight teams in a three-year span? Twice. The first was when we went back-to-back in 1997 and 1998, and that was because we had no turnover between the two teams, and the other was 2001-2003.

The three Elite Eights in five years also ties our best stretch, which was from 1997 to 2001. And when you again consider that '97 and '98 were essentially one great team, the current run of three Regional Finals is more impressive because each team was lead by a different set of players.

The only problem is we've started losing in the Elite Eight.

Lute won his first three Regional Final at Arizona. Since then he's 1-3. Another troubling stat: The UA has not won Elite Eight game as the higher seed since 1988. Seed-wise we were the favorite in 1998 and 2003 and got sent home both times.

The positive is that Arizona under Olson is 3-1 as a lower seed with the Final Four on the line, with the wins in 1994, 1997 and 2001. (It's easy to forget we were the 2-seed in 2001 since we started the season ranked in the top 2 overall.) The only loss as a lower seed was in 2005, and we all know what happened in that game. (You could say after building the big second-half lead we went from underdog to favorite and therefore went from winner to loser.) When it comes to making the Final Four, Lute is one Cat who is a better dog.

We used to run on basically a four-year cycle. Each lineup would come together to get one shot at a title. Elliot/Kerr in 1988. Reeves/Stoudamire in 1994. Simon/Bibby in 1997. Woods/Arenas/Jefferson in 2001. You can see the cycle in our tournament results from the period:

Year: Tournament Wins
1995: 0
1996: 2
1997: 6

1999: 0
2000: 1
2001: 5

A first-round loss, followed by minimal success, followed by the Final Four.

When the NBA draft began committing statutory rape on the amateur ranks, college coaches were forced to speed everything up. Sean Elliot and Damon Stoudamire don't stay for four years any more. After 2001's mass exodus Lute has very impressively upped his recruiting efforts and has now been working with a two-year model.

Year: Tournament Wins
2002: 2
2003: 3

2004: 0
2005: 3

We were in the championship game in 2001. We were a 1-seed and four points away from the Final Four in 2003. We were two points away from the Final Four in 2005. On a national level, Lute has been better than he was fifteen years ago, when we went five years without even an Elite Eight (averaging just one tournament win a year from 1989-1993).

The fact of the matter is if we make one Final Four in 2003-2005 nobody's worried about anything. If we make one more bucket against Illinois, if the Illini miss one three-pointer, if the officials decide to uphold the laws of the land, we have our fifth Final Four appearance and everyone is more forgiving during 2006.

But why is this only happening at Arizona? Why are other national powers still getting to the Final Four? The truth is it just feels that way.

In the past five years, when it seems like it's easier to get drafted by the NBA than get a driver's license, we aren't seeing repeat trips to the Final Four like we used to. Duke, North Carolina, UConn, and Michigan State have each only made the final weekend of the tournament once in the past five years. Kentucky hasn't been there at all.

The only team to make the Final Four twice since 2001 is Kansas, and the guy who took them there is coaching somewhere else.

(Even nouveau-elite Florida only has one Final Four trip, but you have to like their chances of going back. Why? Here's the list of National Champion Gators leaving early for this year's NBA draft:

That's right, there are none. Billy Donovan will be returning all five starters and seven of the eight guys that played in the championship game. In this day and age, that's a far more remarkable accomplishment than winning the title, or keeping his hair slicked down.)

The point is that the traditional gunslingers are having to reload so frequently that young desperados like Marquette, Georgia Tech and George Mason are winning just as many gunfights.

What about the regular season? March isn't the only month in the year. I have to admit, the Pac-10 standings are where the sky-is-falling crowd finds some leverage.

From 1986 to 2003, a stretch of 18 seasons, the UA finished first or second in the Pac-10 every season except one, 1997, and Lute obviously earned some extra credit after class to make up for it.

That's why third place in 2004 and a tie for fourth place in 2006 were such foreign territory to us. And when was the last time Arizona won consecutive Pac-10 championships? 1993 and 1994. That was the tail end of an era when our Cats won seven league titles in a nine-year span. Back then they should've changed it from the Pac-10 to the Lute+9.

What happened? This one's even simpler: The league got better.

During our decade of dominance not one other Pac-10 team made the Final Four. But since then UCLA's shifty Jim Harrick was responsible for four Pac-10 titles and the 1995 National Championship, Stanford has won four conference crowns since 1999 and made the 1998 Final Four, and even Ernie Kent made a down payment to Mephistopheles and Oregon won the 2002 Pac-10 title.

So like most things in life you have to pick a side. You can either kick the dirt and mutter about the good old days, or you can accept that the game has changed, the competition is better, and be proud that Coach Olson still has us more than holding our own.

Arizona remains one of the top men's basketball programs in the country. We fans just have to realize that we're going to continue to see a feast-or-famine cycle as the stud recruits come and go. We're still going to have a Final Four-caliber team every two or three years. The good teams will just be more flawed than in the past because they won't have three years of experience playing together. The bad teams will also be weaker than usual, meaning we're going to continue flirting with ending the NCAA tournament streak.

We're still living life in the fast lane. There's just a lot more traffic, our car warranty has expired, and the swerving idiot in the next lane won't get off his cell phone.

The good news is 2007 should be one of the good years. Put the top down, crank up the tunes, and let's roll.

But you might want to buckle up, just to be safe.

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