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.
Oh wait, Iím sorry. Thatís what I wrote last year. Thereís no peace after a second helping.
This yearís team actually finished worse than last year. The 2006 Wildcats had the exact same 11-7 conference record, but at least they won one Pac-10 tournament game and one NCAA tournament game to salvage some respect. When you go oh-for-the-postseason there is no peace. This yearís team ended in pieces.
The front of our new home uniforms is strikingly plain. No color, no designs. Just a blank white look with a team name and a number. From a distance it could be any team at all. Walking onto the court our players looked like ghosts. Once they got on the court they were absolutely invisible.
With a start time of 4:20 you had to figure someone was getting smoked. The first half was yet another parade of turnovers but we somehow ended the period only down three. Then Purdue scored the first six points of the second half and we turned the ball over on three of our first four possessions, yet the game continued without interruption. Apparently we were saving our timeouts for April.
The team sputtered and stalled all game long and when the engine finally died at the finish line we had our worst tournament scoring output in seven years. It was time once again to leave the madness to somebody else.
This doesnít make our team any better or make us feel any more confident about our future, but it is good to see some strong performances from the rest of the Pac-10. Here is how the 2007 Sweet 16 breaks down by conference (with the corresponding percentage of each leagueís teams in parentheses):
Pac-10: 3 (30%)
SEC: 3 (25%)
Big 12: 2 (17%)
Big East: 2 (13%)
Horizon, Mountain West: 1 (11%)
Missouri Valley: 1 (10%)
Big Ten: 1 (9%)
ACC, CUSA 1 (8%)
Mustafa Shakur got the assists he needed to pass Damon Stoudamire for the second highest career total in UA history, but his legacy will be one of disappointment. After a string of six Sweet 16s and only one first-round exit in eight years from 1996-2003, Shakur was at the wheel for a single Sweet 16 and two one-and-dones over his four-year career. Even his one deep March run ended with arguably the most notorious loss in program history.
Itís an unfortunate fate for a young man who worked hard for four years and was nothing less than exemplary off the court. But thatís the challenge you accept when you choose to play the marquee position on the University of Arizonaís marquee team.
Hereís another post-2003 trend that is hard to ignore. In the years since we said goodbye to the duo of Jason Gardner and Lute Walton, each successive senior class has gotten worse:
Class, Record, Winning %, NCAA Tournament Wins
2003, 107-29, .787, 11
2005, 102-31, .767, 8
2006, 98-34, .742, 7
2007, 90-41, .687, 4
Weíll save the in-depth woe-is-us investigation for another day, but weíre certainly not turning a blind eye to the flashing red warning signs. Youíre not a bad fan if instead of waving your Wildcat flag you find yourself wiping your brow with it of late.
Itís OK to be worried.
Itís OK to note that the four NCAA tournament wins in a four-year span takes us back to the East Santa of Ohio dark ages. Itís fine to acknowledge that weíve gone three consecutive senior classes without a trip to the Final Four.
The reality is this is now Luteís longest Final Four drought while in Tucson. It only took five years to get to his first one, six to his second one, three to the championship, and four to the most recent cutting of the nets. Now weíre on a seven-year dry spell and counting, and it doesnít exactly look like huge rain clouds on the horizon.
The trend of Arizona Basketball is decidedly down. Thatís the truth, and itís OK to admit that. But itís not OK to accept it.
Coach Lute Olson isnít going anywhere, and he shouldnít. This is still his show. He is still competitive. He is still driven to win. But what is he going to change to start winning again?
We hoped 2004 was an aberration. We thought 2005 gave us hope for the future. But three uncomfortable years out of four goes well beyond fluke, and if you keep doing what youíve been doing youíre going to keep getting what youíve got.
We have to trust that the man who built this program from the basement to the penthouse will know what needs to be done to make things right. The building doesnít need to be condemned, but it certainly needs to be remodeled.
We need our savior to save us one last time.
With basketball season over far too soon we turn our attention to the Boys of Not Quite Summer. Spring football practice begins on Wednesday, and the baseball team has the following tune-ups left before sliding into conference play (the first five games are at home):
Tue Mar 20, 7 p.m. Morehead State
Wed Mar 21, 4 p.m. Morehead State
Fri Mar 23, 7 p.m. Northern Colorado
Sat Mar 24, 6 p.m. Northern Colorado
Sun Mar 25, 12 p.m. Northern Colorado
Wed Mar 28, 6:30 p.m. Arizona State, at the Ballpark Formerly Known As BOB
Itís sometimes hard to move on, but it always feels good toÖ
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