Every so often, we need to take a look at something involving the Arizona Wildcats that takes a few more words than your average blog post. This is the first installment of such a post, and we call this Long Claws.
As the Arizona Wildcats get ready for the Sweet 16 and attempt a run to the Final Four, Zona Zealots wanted to look back through the years and find the ten greatest tournament runs. You never know how this year will turn out, and you almost surely know what will be #1, but let’s take a look back and remember all those amazing times.
10. 2003 Regional Finalist (#1 vs. #16 Vermont, #9 Gonzaga, #5 Notre Dame, #2 Kansas)
The last Arizona Wildcats team to get a #1 seed occupies the tenth position on our list. First, let’s get over the bad part of this tournament. Arizona ended the regular season 25-3, a clear #1 seed, yet it ran into a strong #2 seed in Kansas. Still, Arizona hasn’t been able to yet get back to a place where its path to a Final Four would have been as clear as 2003. The team started out playing Vermont and Gonzaga in Salt Lake City and then moved on to Anaheim for battles with Illinois and Kansas. That this team fell short of a Final Four was particularly stinging since it was the senior years for Jason Gardner, Ricky Anderson, and Luke Walton.
As the tournament got underway, Arizona was just coming off a first-round defeat in the Pac-10 tournament to a bad UCLA team, but it was mostly known that Arizona and Kentucky were the top two teams in the country that year. I remembered that a lot of people were annoyed on Selection Sunday that Kentucky and Arizona’s regions would have played in the Final Four rather than in the championship, since many people assumed those might be the two teams vying to cut down the nets in New Orleans.
The loss to Kansas aside, the rest of the tournament was pretty fun. Arizona opened with a blowout of Vermont before it ran into perennial Cinderella Gonzaga. Gonzaga and Arizona played to what might be the Wildcats’ greatest tournament win ever. Gonzaga threw punch after punch at Arizona, yet Arizona stayed on top, surviving a Blake Stepp three at the end of the first overtime and a missed three by Tony Skinner with four seconds to play in the second overtime, as well as its missed follow from five feet by Stepp. As Lute said after the game, “That was not a game for people who weren’t willing to lay it out on the floor.”
9. 1998 Regional Finalist (#1 vs. #16 Nicholls St., #9 Illinois St., #4 Maryland, #3 Utah)
One may wonder why this tournament, which might have had Arizona’s most heartbreaking loss, would make the list while 1989, which arguably had a better team and a more confusing and befuddling loss, would be left off. The major difference? An extra win. The Arizona Wildcats bowed out in the Sweet 16 in 1989 on UNLV’s Anderson Hunt’s three pointer (following Kenny Lofton’s flop).
In 1998, before the Utah game, the Cats were rolling. Coming off its national championship, Arizona got off to a slow start, losing to Duke in the Maui finals and to Kansas on a neutral site 2 game later. Arizona then lost at Florida State a couple weeks later to fall to 7-3. The season began to look like a bit of a disaster, but Arizona won all but one of its remaining regular season games, running to a 17-1 Pac-12 record. The Arizona Wildcats looked every bit of a team ready to repeat as champions.
In the tourney, Arizona headed to Sacramento, where it beat Nicholls State by 39 and Illinois State by 33. Next came a trip to Anaheim. Arizona quickly took out Maryland with a twelve-point win before it got set for a game with Rick Marjerus’s Utah Utes (featuring Andre Miller). The game wasn’t even close. Utah used a gimmick defense and won by 25 in one of the more shocking upsets in Elite Eight history. Miles Simon, Mike Bibby, and Michael Dickerson were held to a combined 19 points, 34 off their average. It was also their final game in Arizona uniforms, as well as Bennett Davison’s. In short, there was a lot of heartbreak to go around for Arizona fans following the Utah loss. That said, we all still had a good time dreaming of another Arizona championship just eleven months after it won its first.
8. 1996 Regional Semifinalist (#3 vs. #14 Valparaiso, #6 Iowa, #2 Kansas)
This was an interesting year for the Arizona Wildcats tournament wise. Arizona was coming off yet another first-round loss from 1995′s debacle against Miami (OH). And don’t forget that besides the 1994 Final Four team (see below), Arizona lost in the first round in 1993 (*sigh* Santa Clara) and 1992 (East Tennessee St.).
1996 was not unlike Arizona this year in that expectations weren’t particularly high to start the season. In ’96, the Cats started in the AP poll at #19. Arizona then rattled off eight straight wins, including beating Michigan and Georgetown in Madison Square Garden at the Preseason NIT. Arizona climbed as high as #3 in the polls and an 8-0 before coming down to Earth, going 13-5 in the Pac-12 and 24-6 overall. That team, however, had a far stronger finish than the 2013 team and was able to secure the #3 seed. It even defeated a strong Cincinnati team mid-conference season.
Arizona opened the NCAA tournament in Tempe, destroying Valparaiso in its first NCAA tournament appearance (and two years before one of the most famous shots in college basketball history) and easily beating a decent Iowa team to get to the Sweet 16. Arizona faced Kansas against Denver in the Sweet 16, falling in the last minute after coming back from twelve down midway through the second half. The game was fairly remarkable in that Raef Lafrentz had only one point and Scot Pollard only seven, but Paul Pierce destroyed the Wildcats with twenty points and five boards. The most frustrating things, though, were that Arizona had built a double-digit lead in the first half that quickly evaporated and that Joe McLean played only thirteen minutes due to food poisoning. This annoying loss to Kansas in a game that Arizona could have (and maybe should have) won is often forgotten given the win over Kansas the following year.
7. 2009 Regional Semifinalist (#12 vs. #5 Utah, #13 Cleveland St., #1 Louisville)
AKA: The Russ Pennell Year (AKA: The Mike Dunlop Year). This season ended up being a pretty amazing surprise. Against all odds, these Arizona Wildcats kept the NCAA streak going. Then again, they had two NBA draft picks on the roster (Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill) with Nic Wise running the point. This is a time for Arizona Wildcats trivia: Without looking it up, who was Arizona’s sixth leading scorer on this team (outside of Budinger, Hill, Wise, Jamelle Horne, and Kyle Fogg)? That’s right, Zane Johnson. So expectations, especially the head coaching situation, were low.
Despite that, the team earned its #12 seed narrowly. The Wildcats won non-conference games over strong San Diego State, Kansas, Houston, and Gonzaga squads, but it lost to UAB, Texas A&M, and UNLV. Entering the Pac-10 schedule at 9-3, Arizona promptly lost its first two conference games in the Bay Area. After the Houston game, though, Arizona found its stride, winning seven straight before dropping four straight near the end of the season. Despite losing in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament, Arizona somehow got an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
All bets were off after that, and Arizona started as a #12 seed in Miami. It first took out #5 Utah fairly easily and lucked out in the second round, facing #13 Cleveland State rather than #4 Wake Forest (Jeff Teague would have been a matchup nightmare). By this time, every single Arizona Wildcats fan was elated, and any more wins would have just been gravy on top of an amazing finish to a trying season. Arizona didn’t get any more wins, of course. Louisville was never tested by Arizona, winning by 39, the biggest Sweet 16 margin of the 64-team era. Wildcats fans, however, don’t seem to remember that game. They remember how Russ Pennell held the team together, bridging the Lute Olson and Sean Miller eras of Arizona Basketball. They remember how a team got to the tournament against all odds and shockingly ended up among fifteen other sweet teams. And they remember how the Cats had heart when they needed.
6. 2005 Regional Finalist (#3 vs. #14 Utah St., #11 UAB, #2 Oklahoma St., #1 Illinois)
I will not pretend that this finale does not occupy the same problem as the 1988 and 1998 teams. I happen to find the Illinois loss far more devastating than the UNLV or Utah losses. It probably has most to do with the manner of loss. A ridiculous home crowd. One of the most unfairly maligned players in Arizona Wildcats basketball history, Mustafa Shakur, making bonehead plays down the stretch, but also getting assaulted without fouls being called. Salim Stoudamire’s missing touch, going 2/13 (and 1/7 from 3). Forever, Arizona fans must be reminded when some media outlet wants to talk about the most exciting games in tournament history, they talk about Illinois’s comeback from fifteen down with four minutes to play.
Let’s talk about the road to that horrific Illinois game first, for a moment. 2005 was the last great team of the Lute Olson era. The teams the following two years managed only #8 seeds and one tournament win between them. 2006 and 2007 had some major chemistry issues due quite a bit to Marcus Williams. Those teams had some glue guys in Hassan Adams and Ivan Radenovic, but the team lacked in those high superstars (granted, Shakur was supposed to turn into that guy).
But the 2005 team had something special. Remember that Shakur was merely a sophomore, but he was dishing to Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye, seniors each. Salim Stoudamire, Arizona’s second-greatest shooter, had a general clutchness equal to Mark Lyons’, but also would rarely leave you frustrated during his senior season. Salim understood the game by that point and knew what he needed to do. Frye blossomed throughout that entire year too, earning himself a lottery spot out of almost nowhere. Throw in Adams, Radenovic, Jawann McClellan, and Chris Rodgers, and this team had something.
Unfortunately, Arizona lost in the Pac-12 championship game to Washington, costing itself a 2 seed (and possibly a #1 seed) and the opportunity to stay in the west for the regional finals. The Wildcats started in Boise, where they got rid of Utah State and UAB fairly easily. They were then matched with Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16. This was Salim’s game. Salim basically put Arizona on his back, leading them back from a late five-point deficit before hitting a game-winning three pointer with under three seconds left. Yes, this all led to the Illinois game. But if you went back to 2005 on the day before the Illinois game, you would comment that the ride had been great so far.
5. 1994 Semifinalist (#2 vs. Loyola MD, #7 Virginia, #3 Louisville, #1 Missouri, #1 Arkansas)
Arizona’s second Final Four team had what may end up as the best backcourt in Arizona Wildcats basketball history. The Wildcats started senior Kahlid Reeves, who averaged a ridiculous 24.2 points in 1994, and junior Damon Stoudamire added an extra 18 points per game. There were also defensive specialist Reggie Geary, big front line Ray Owes and Joseph Blair, and a number of great bench players who could play ten solid minutes a night. But make no mistake: this was Khalid and Damon’s ride.
Arizona went through the regular season fairly uneventfully, not losing a game until the Maui final against Kentucky on a ridiculous buzzer-beater tip-in. Arizona then won the Pac-10, going 14-4. Somehow, Arizona lost at ASU to end the season, and Arizona dropped from a potential #1 seed to a #2 seed. Fortunately for Arizona, it still stayed in the West region.
Arizona opened in Sacramento, easily taking care of Loyola-MD and Virginia. Arizona then moved onto Los Angeles where it first beat Louisville in a fairly easy game. By this time, Reeves already had 91 points, averaging more than 30 points a game over the first three games. Arizona then played Missouri and won in a surprising walk, winning the regional final by twenty.
The Arizona Wildcats headed to Charlotte to play in its second Final Four, opening against Bill Clinton’s Arkansas Razorbacks. Unfortunately for Arizona, Arkansas’s defense proved too tough in the second half. Damon Stoudamire was limited to 5/24 shooting, and Khalid “only” scored twenty. Under Arkansas’s game plan, Arizona was left to rely on its role players, and while Owes and Corey Williams stepped up, the inability of the stars to score was too difficult a task to overcome. Nonetheless, Arizona’s second trip to the Final Four coupled with easy wins over the first two weekends of the tournament made this NCAA run quite fun.
4. 2001 Finalist (#2 vs. #15 E. Illinois, #10 Butler, #3 Ole Miss, #1 Illinois, #1 Michigan State, #1 Duke)
The 2001 season was marked by one single event which changed Arizona Wildcats basketball forever—the loss of Bobbi Olson. It was also marked by a lot of unfair things happening to Arizona, including Bobbi’s passing. For example, on the court, Arizona suffered one of the worst calls in NCAA history when UCONN won on a blown goaltending call on a legitimate Loren Woods block. Woods and Richard Jefferson also found themselves facing suspensions during the year.
Arizona started the season at #1, but after its first Pac-12 weekend, Arizona found itself 8-5 with losses at Purdue, UCONN, and Illinois. Arizona also dropped home games to Mississippi State (where Lute’s mind was reasonably elsewhere) and Stanford (Jim Rosborough’s only loss in his two-week stretch as Arizona’s head coach while Lute Olson mourned). Following the Stanford loss, Arizona went 15-2, finding inspiration in its coach.
The NCAA tournament went fairly easily until the championship game. Arizona, slotted, in the Midwest Regional, headed to Kansas City, where it took out #15 Eastern Illinois by 25 and #10 Butler by 21. Next came a trip to San Antonio, where Arizona dominated Ole Miss on the boards en route to a 10-point victory. Arizona next beat Illinois, who committed so many fouls that Arizona set an NCAA tournament record for free throws.
In Minnesota, Arizona destroyed Michigan State, outscoring the Spartans by seventeen in the second half. Then came Duke. Duke followed its reputation in the championship game, which was one of the most absurdly refereed title games in NCAA history. Jay Williams surfed on Jason Gardner’s back and didn’t get called, so you can imagine how the rest of it went. And we’ll never know how the game would have gone with a fully-healthy Arizona Wildcats squad. C’est la vie, however. Arizona’s most trying season ever ended with an amazing run to the title game, just as everyone expected at the very beginning of the season, and Arizona Wildcats fans can be proud of the effort put forth by team for its down coach.
3. 2011 Regional Finalist (#5 vs. #12 Memphis, #4 Texas, #1 Duke, #3 UCONN)
The first great NCAA tournament run at Arizona by Sean Miller occupies the #3 spot on our rankings. This season fell so high because of how exciting the tournament games are and because of how unexpected the run to the Elite Eight was. It wasn’t just that Arizona started the season ranked outside the Top 25—Arizona didn’t enter the Top 25 until the last week of January.
But the extreme progress of Derrick Williams’s game could not have been called. Yes, Williams was amazing in his freshman year, but his sophomore year was otherworldly. Among the most used players, he was #2 in offensive rating, #6 in effective field goal percentage, #11 in free throw rate, #4 in true shooting percentage, and #6 in fouls drawn per forty minutes. Nastiness was required, and he brought it.
So when the Arizona Wildcats got to the tournament, they knew who they would have to rely on.And rely on Derrick did they. Williams had a game-saving block at the end of the Memphis first-round game which he followed up with an even more impressive three-point play to end the Texas game. Arizona left Tulsa happily and travelled to Anaheim, where it was set for a date with #1 seed Duke. The first half was owned by Williams, who single-handedly kept Arizona in the game, Arizona heading into halftime down 44-38. The rest of the Wildcats woke up in the second half and went on a 19-2 run. Duke never recovered from the early second-half run, and Arizona cruised to victory. And although Arizona could not find a way to beat UCONN to get into the Final Four, it did nearly pull off yet another upset, a Jamelle Horne three pointer just falling short at the buzzer.
This team will never be remembered in the same way that the 1988 and 1997 teams are. But it provided Arizona Wildcats fans with one of the most exciting basketball in the history of the program and exceeded all expectations in finding a way into the Elite Eight. Arizona fans should always mark this season as the one where Sean Miller put Arizona back on the map.
2. 1988 Semifinalist (#1 vs. #16 Cornell, #8 Seton Hall, #5 Iowa, #2 North Carolina, #1 Oklahoma)
Like the 1997 team, this team is forever in the hearts of any Arizona Wildcats fan who was around when it happened. This was the team that captured the heart of Tucson, that forever made Tucson a basketball town, not a football town. From Steve Kerr’s amazing recruitment and the sorrow we shared with him, from hometown boy Sean Elliott’s growth into the best player in college basketball, from Lute Olson’s re-building of Arizona into a national power from a Pac-10 laughing joke…this team had it all, the Gumbys, the song, Tom Tobert.
Arizona romped through the regular season, finishing 28-2. The three losses were an absurd game at The Pit against New Mexico and Arizona’s only Pac-10 loss, at Stanford. Arizona was #1 in the AP poll for six weeks back throughout the regular season, and it was never lower than 3rd after the middle of December. In sum: this was the most dominating Arizona Wildcats team ever. Arizona scored 20 more points per game than its opponents that season, yet it still had a top 30 strength of schedule. The Cats had stockpiled an absurd amount of NBA talent, as we can only hope as many guys from this year’s squad make the NBA as that year.
Arizona easily won the Pac-10 tournament before heading to Los Angeles for the first round where it beat an overmatched #16-seed Cornell team by 40 and a not-quite-there-yet Seton Hall squad by 29. In Seattle, in the Sweet 16, Lute Olson beat his old team, Iowa, by twenty, and Arizona easily moved past North Carolina, 70-52. People always easily recall Elliott and Kerr when thinking about this team, but most people forget just how dominating Tom Tolbert and Anthony Cook were in their own regards. Cook was the leading scorer for the Cats in the first two games of that tournament, and it was Tolbert’s romps throughout the North Carolina game that lead to the blowout.
Arizona fell short to Oklahoma in the Final Four after falling behind big in the first half. Arizona just could not make up the deficit in the second half, for Steve Kerr was never able to find his shooting touch. Oklahoma’s bigs scored the points, dished perfect pass after perfect pass by Oklahoma’s backcourt, which netted fourteen assists. The loss to Oklahoma, however, didn’t diminish anything about this team. The Wildcats no longer belonged to the University. The Cats were Tucson’s, and forever they have stayed.
1. 1997 National Champions (#4 vs. #13 South Alabama, #12 Charleston, #1 Kansas, #10 Providence, #1 North Carolina, #1 Kentucky)
There isn’t much more to say about this team that hasn’t already been said ad nauseum. The close calls, the three #1 seeds, the play of Miles Simon, the 5th-place finish in the Pac-10, the three-guard offense, and whatever else, we’ve covered a lot of it. This team was just not built for winning a championship in 1997, but stranger things have happened. Mike Bibby, a freshman extraordinaire, spent parts of the season finding his chemistry with his new team, and the rest of the team worked to adapt.
The team struggled to a 11-7 finish in the Pac-10, good for fifth place, but remember that this was an era when the Pac-10 was strong enough that you could still get a #4 seed after a fifth-place finish. That and Arizona’s non-conference schedule was ridiculous. Games (by seeding) against #1 North Carolina, at #3 New Mexico, #2 Utah, and #10 Texas proved to be an excellent lead in to the Pac-10 season.
Nearly the entire tournament was precarious for Arizona. Its first round game against #13 seed South Alabama nearly ended the Wildcats’ season right there. Arizona went into halftime down two and found itself down ten with a little over seven minutes left in the game. Simon willed the team back, however, and the Cats advanced to the Sweet 16 after dispatching the #12 seed, the College of Charleston. The Charleston game gets relatively little credit for being exciting that year. Everyone remembers the USA game, the overtime games, and the games against the #1 seeds. But no one seems to recall this game much. Arizona was up 69-62 with under a minute left, but the Cougars came all the way back, hitting a 3 with 19.6 seconds left to cut the lead to 70-69. Miles Simon missed one of his two free throws, and Charleston missed a mid-range jumper before an Arizona rebound and free throws sealed the game.
The Arizona Wildcats then moved onto an epic game with that season’s top team, Kansas. The Jayhawks had been #1 basically the entire season, and by almost every metric, Kansas should have beaten Arizona. The Wildcats needed everything it had, and a near miss by Raef Lafrentz at the buzzer would have sent the game into overtime. Like in 1996, Arizona was able to shut down Kansas’s front line, but unlike 1996, Arizona had Mike Bibby, and the Wildcat guards outplayed the Jayhawk guards.
After the Kansas game, the rest was easy. It only took an overtime game with Providence (after blowing a seven point lead with about a minute left) and Miles Simon’s thirty points, a relatively easy win over North Carolina (compared to everything else that happened in the tournament) that ended the Dean Smith era (despite 21 from Vince Carter and 18 from Antoine Jamison, North Carolina had 17 turnovers to Arizona’s 3), and an overtime final against Kentucky where Simon drove to the line at will, drawing fouls, and ending the Rick Pitino era.
Again, too much has been said about this team. Or, perhaps, not enough can ever be said. This blogger just knows that Arizona’s run in 1997 contained most of the best moments of being an Arizona Wildcats fan. A repeat this year would not be unwelcome.