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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Arizona’s rebirth

Mike Christy
Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Wildcat The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team took on the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA West Region Final on Saturday, March 26, 2011, in the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The Huskies advanced to the Final Four with a 65-63 win.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The rebuilding is over.

Coming after a 16-15 season that marked how much of a ground-up project the Arizona basketball program needed, a 2010-11 Elite Eight run put the Wildcats back on the winning track faster than even those within the program expected. And while a 65-63 loss to UConn put an end to the Wildcats’ season, it also gave a glimpse of what the future might hold.

Sean Miller’s second season as Arizona’s head basketball coach produced the second-highest win total in school history.

“”It wasn’t too long ago we were 16-15,”” Miller said. “”And to be where we were, a shot to go to the Final Four, 30-8, it will probably feel better in a few weeks than it does now.

“”But I’ve never been prouder of a team, and I’ve never seen a team come so far as we did in a short period of time.””

Coming into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed, the Wildcats had a mixed bag of success and failure. They had played top-25 teams like Kansas and Washington tough in the regular season, but had baffling losses in blowouts against BYU and UCLA.

At Arizona, Miller’s only win against a ranked opponent was against then-No. 24 Washington last season. Going into the NCAA Tournament, there was no signature victory, one that would announce the Wildcats’ legitimacy and climb back to elite status.

Facing four of college basketball’s known powers in the NCAA and beating three, that all changed.

Only the overly outspoken — see Charles Barkley, Southern California coach Kevin O’Neill and Ellen DeGeneres — picked UA to go any further than one-win deep in the tournament. Nobody believed them.

After a difficult 77-75 grind-out win against No. 12 seed Memphis in Tulsa, Okla., the Wildcats weren’t favored to beat a physical Texas Longhorn team.

“”People really didn’t believe in us,”” said forward Jesse Perry, a junior transfer in his first year at Arizona. “”We really don’t care too much about that. We just wanted to come out and show to ourselves we could do this.

But Arizona did beat Texas in a 70-69 affair to advance to the Sweet 16, where they would face No. 1 seed and reigning national champion Duke. There, they exacted revenge on the Blue Devils, who beat Arizona in the 2001 National Championship game.

Handily beating Duke 93-77 in Anaheim, Calif., gave the Wildcats an Elite Eight game with UConn — two missed 3-pointers in the final possession robbed Arizona of a Final Four appearance.

“”You just talk about quick turnaround like that,”” said forward Solomon Hill, “”you’re talking about maybe before the season started, some people saying maybe we wouldn’t make the tournament again, it’d take a couple years for Coach to get us going.

“”Just to see us go far, I wouldn’t trade anything for that.””

With a four-player recruiting class coming next season, expectations are suddenly Final Four or bust, even if forward Derrick Williams elects to make the jump to the NBA.

“”I have no doubt Miller will eventually bring a national championship to Arizona,”” said junior Kyle Fogg, who sat in the locker room after the UConn loss with his jersey over his face.

A realization swept over Fogg, who ended up at Arizona through the tumultuous recruiting efforts of the final years of the Lute Olson era. He has one last chance to make a run through the tournament.

“”It hurts because you never know when you can possibly make it this far,”” Fogg said. “”I’m going to take this week off and work as hard as I’ve ever worked, get back in the gym and see what we can do next season.””

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