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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “One more win, and they’re in”

    Inside Arizona Basketball

    On Thursday, 14,729 fans paid to witness the official closure of the Lute Olson era.

    Two days later, 14,723 fans paid to wave Russ Pennell goodbye.ÿ

    By basic math, only six fans lost faith after Thursday’s loss to California that seemingly sent the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament chances out the door.ÿ

    But somehow the roller coaster can still end up on the right track. Maybe it was the other bubble teams around the nation that lost this week. Maybe it’s today’s what-have-you-done-for-me-this-instant mindset.

    Bottom line: The Wildcats (19-12, 9-9 Pac-10) need one more win to secure an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

    That’s it. Just one more, and pop the champagne to a quarter century of consistency.

    And who else but the Sun Devils stand between the program’s 25th straight Tournament appearance and … well … an event more foreign to Tucson than a snowy day: the NIT Tournament.

    “”One game at a time,”” said UA forward Fendi Onobun. “”We definitely have an opportunity. We have another bullet. All we can do is take it one game at time.””

    Convince the league brass to play Thursday’s opening round of the Pacific 10 Conference Tournament in Arizona Stadium, and they’d sell 60,000 tickets.

    It’s Arizona vs. ASU with a trip to the Big Dance on the line.

    Less than a month ago, we thought the Feb. 22 game in Tempe was the biggest Duel in the Desert in decades.

    It can’t get any bigger than Thursday.

    Maybe if UA interim head coach Russ Pennell can’t find a coaching job this spring, Paramount Pictures can hire the only guy who can put “”Producer of 2008-09’s most interesting college basketball script”” on his résumé.

    “”Always fight. Never give up and keep your faith,”” Onobun said of his four years as a Wildcat.

    But really, Onobun’s turbulent tenure closely resembles the struggles, obstacles and spirits that the 2008-09 Wildcats have experienced during the past five months.

    “”I could’ve quit, I could’ve transferred,”” Onobun said. “”My four years here were a great experience, but it was a tough pill to swallow. It just goes by so quick. If anything, to just use this experience as a learning tool.””

    I’ve compared this season’s dramatic story line to that of a made-for-Hollywood script several times. But that quote from Onobun just adds to the deep complexity of this season.

    This won’t be the last time the movie references surface, especially if the Wildcats knock out the big bad Sun Devils for the first time in two seasons.ÿ

    “”I was very proud at the way we came out (Saturday), especially after Thursday’s loss,”” Pennell said. “”That’s one best characteristic of this team: they’ve been able to bounce back every time they were up against it.””

    As the Arizona-ASU rivalry continues, another rivalry falls.ÿ

    Stanford vs. Arizona didn’t command the magnitude that it used to – traditionally, the two teams could attract a national television audience and top-25 rankings.ÿ

    Then again, Arizona basketball isn’t what it used to be, either.

    But Saturday’s 101-87 win over the Cardinal meant just as much to the Wildcats as ever.

    Their NCAA Tournament résumé is complete in every aspect aside from wins. The Wildcats’ RPI (No. 52), strength of schedule (No. 32) and quality wins over conference champions (Pac-10, Washington; Big 12, Kansas; West Coast, Gonzaga; Big Sky, NAU) should fulfill what the selection committee seeks.

    “”It won’t surprise me if we pick up the paper in the morning, and the experts say we’re in,”” Pennell said. “”It’s that fine line. If you lose (this) Thursday, are you in? That’s the question. That’s why you have to win games.””

    Crowds prove that drama sells

    It wasn’t the incredible Final Four teams of 1988, 1994, 1997 or 2001 that drew the largest crowds of the Lute Olson Era.

    It was this weekend’s regular-season finale, proving that talent is no match for lovability when it comes to selling tickets.ÿ

    Fans from the 1990s witnessed ridiculous talent from Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Chris Mills, Jason Terry, Jason Gardner and so on. They went 312 consecutive weeks ranked in the Associated Press top-25 poll, a national record.

    This season’s Wildcats haven’t been ranked all season, but somehow set all kinds of McKale Center records even in the nation’s worst economic climate in nearly 80 years.

    Thursday’s game against Cal attracted the largest crowd since 1973. Saturday’s game against Stanford became the second largest.

    All that for a bubble team.

    But tickets still sold for the raw drama that you could see in movie theaters someday.

    It’s belief and hope for a two-hour outlet away from life’s daily struggles.

    Bryan Roy is a journalism sophomore. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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