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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Arizona basketball: The UA’s proud tradition

Rebecca Noble
Arizona fans vie for camera time during ESPN’s College GameDay live broadscast from McKale Center on Feb. 21, 2014.

Arizona basketball is a tradition that truly took form in the 1980s when a white-haired gentleman by the name of Lute Olson turned the Wildcats into a perennial national power, reaching the Final-Four four times in two decades—1988, 1994, 1997 and 2001.

Olson was the coach of Arizona’s only national championship in 1997 and is revered around Tucson for making the UA basketball program what it is today.

Lute stepped down from the position in 2009, and then-athletic director Jim Livengood hired a little known basketball coach by the name of Sean Miller from Xavier University.

The Miller era

Miller has carried on Olson’s legacy, reaching the Elite Eight three times out of his first six seasons.

Unlike Olson, Miller is still seeking his first Final Four and has been painfully close. Under Miller, Arizona has lost in the Elite Eight three times—a two-point loss to Connecticut in 2011, a one-point overtime loss to Wisconsin in in 2014, and a seven-point to loss to Wisconsin, again, in 2015.

That said, it is not a matter of if Arizona will reach a Final Four under Miller, but when.

For all his work, Miller has consistently praised the ZonaZoo, deeming that it separates the UA apart from other schools. The UA’s roaring student section has a significant advantage in recruiting and production on the court — a benefit he continuously uses to his advantage.

The basketball program took a step back this past season from its usual place among college basketball’s elite, having its record setting 49-game home win streak snapped and experiencing the first opening round exit from the NCAA Tournament in the Sean Miller era.

The good, the bad and how the Wildcats will shape-up this year

The 2015-2016 version of the Wildcats were an inconsistent bunch, riddled with injuries and without a true leader on the floor most of the season. Though the season ended in a 25-9 overall record, the team’s chemistry could never get sure footing and it led to a first round exit at the hands of Wichita State in the tournament.

But despite the setback, the future continues to look bright for Arizona basketball.

This year’s roster appears to have a depth that is unchallenged by most programs.

Sophomore guard Allonzo Trier will look to continue his scoring from a year ago and sophomore big man Chance Comanche will look to gain a starting role this season. In addition, the return of forward Ray Smith—who sat out his freshman year with an ACL tear—is expected to be a major contributor on the wing.

Senior point guard Kadeem Allen, junior center Dusan Ristic and junior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright will once again be contributors.

As always, the Wildcats are not just looking to who is coming back, but also to who is coming in.

In this upcoming season, the program is set to feature highly-touted freshmen plus a few transfers. The biggest name to keep an eye on is Lauri Markkanen, a 7-foot, do-it-all big man who hails from Finland.

Markkanen is expected to compete for a starting role immediately along with fellow freshman guard Kobi Simmons—a McDonald’s All-American—and guard/forward Rawle Alkins. Both are top-20 prospects in their recruiting class.

The Wildcats also landed Denny Talbott, a transfer from Lipscomb, and Keanu Pinder, a transfer from Hutchinson Community College, are both are expected to make a contribution in some form to this year’s team, thus continuing the UA list of transfer success.

The program also added Dylan Smith, a transfer from UNC-Asheville, but per NCAA rules, require him to sit out a year before suiting up for the Wildcats.

As a whole, the program appears to be in good hands as Miller has proven to be rigorous on the recruiting trail.

During the Miller era, players like T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson, Derrick Williams, Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson, Solomon Hill and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have played in the NBA, continuing a long trend of Arizona basketball players in the association.

Aside from the players Miller has produced, UA already had a track record of sending its alumni to the NBA. Steve Kerr, Andre Iguodala, Luke Walton and Bruce Fraser all represented the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, while Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye and Bret Brielmaier ended the season hoisting the hardware with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

All in all, the so-called “Player’s Program” has a rich past, a strong current roster, and an always-promising future.

Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter

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