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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Elite once again

Maybe talking about Elite Eights doesn’t elicit the same fervor as, say, Final Fours.

But in Arizona’s recent basketball history, it’s two Elite Eights that shaped the transition from past to present. Though Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson would coach for two years following the last Elite Eight run in 2005, the Wildcats have since been anything but, well, elite.

Until Saturday.

The Wildcats came within a single shot of the Final Four, losing by two after two missed 3-point attempts that would’ve punched their tickets to Houston, Texas.

In 2005 — the last time Arizona was one of the last eight standing — it was the same deal. Forward Hassan Adams put up a last-ditch jumper that missed as the Wildcats fell 90-89 to No. 1 seed Illinois in overtime.

Both were losses, but the symbolism of each couldn’t be more different.

The 2005 loss came after one of the most epic collapses in NCAA Tournament history. With four minutes left in regulation, the No. 3 seed Wildcats led by 15 points against a one-loss Illinois team. But all of the sudden, the Wildcats played not-to-lose, leading to a 20-5 run behind future NBAers in Deron Williams and Luther Head.

Illinois won in overtime, the defeat marking a critical juncture in the Arizona program’s history. Following that 2004-05 season, it was all downhill.

Even though Olson coached two more seasons before the infamous two interim-led squads, he couldn’t win more than 20 games and failed to finish as one of the top two teams in the Pacific 10 Conference.

Recruiting took a hit, too. Before Olson left, it was an easy recruiting tactic for opposing coaches to use the “”Lute might not be there for your four years”” approach.

It showed.

Duke senior Kyle Singler told reporters before Thursday’s Sweet 16 game versus Arizona that he worried Olson, who had recruited him out of Medford, Ore., might not make it through his collegiate career.

He had a right to be worried. On Thursday, Olson watched the Duke loss from the stands.

So through the next five seasons, Arizona was an average team in an average conference. Even a Sweet 16 run in 2009 came by a little luck.

This year, luck was nothing of the sort. Yes, the Wildcats had some buzzer-beaters, blocks and balls bouncing their way, but to navigate through three nationally recognized basketball programs in the NCAA Tournament and lose by one shot to a fourth isn’t luck.

This year, Arizona belonged once more.

And when it finally came to an end on Saturday — like 2005, in the Elite Eight, and like 2005, with 30 wins — it was probably the same disbelief that had players frozen in the locker room, unable to fathom what had just happened. Yet the feeling came as Arizona failed to take a victory from the arms of UConn, not because they handed it away, as was the case six years prior.

This time, that stuffy feeling in the locker room didn’t come with a seasoning of emptiness and failure. Instead, it provided fuel for the future.

—Kevin Zimmerman is a journalism senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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