Things are looking bright in Tucson right now. Everywhere you go on campus, students are wearing U of A apparel and don’t let anyone forget who’s on top of the college basketball world. The entire city of Tucson is thirsty for their Wildcats to bring home a national title for the first time this millennium. It’s been 17 years since the ‘Cats have won a national championship, and many believe that 2014 is THE year. Although this Arizona team has been ruling the polls for eight straight weeks and has amazing NBA talent, are they really the best Arizona team ever? If you watched the game this past Sunday against Utah on Fox Sports One, the commentators reviewed some potential candidates for the “Best Arizona Team of All-Time”. There isn’t one correct answer but this topic is debatable. Let’s take a look at some of the best teams that have ever taken the floor at McKale Center:
2000-2001 Arizona Wildcats
The painful ten point loss to Duke in the National Championship game still haunts Arizona rants to this day. The Wildcats came so far and fell just short of their ultimate goal. Although this team lost in the finals, the amount of talent Lute Olson’s team had was unbelievable. The backcourt consisted of Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas, possibly some of the most productive and consistent players in program history. Arenas, as we all know, went on to play in the NBA and solidified his career on the Washington Wizards. Richard Jefferson, possibly one of the greatest players to ever come out of Tucson, put the team on his back in some circumstances. Number 44 will always be Richard’s number. His jersey was retired and now hangs on the McKale Center wall for everyone to see and is still going strong in the NBA. Big man Loren Woods put up great numbers his senior year (13 points per game, 3 blocks per game), and was an absolute force on defense. Michael Wright averaged an impressive 15 points per game during his junior season. Luke Walton also provided great help off the bench during his sophomore year. The 2000-2001 team finished with a 28-8 record and finished ranked number 2 in the AP poll.
1987-1988 Arizona Wildcats
When people think of the history of the Arizona program, Sean Elliot will come up every time. He was a hometown hero, born and raised in Tucson and attended nearby Cholla High School on Tucson’s west side. If you ask people around town, most of them would probably tell you that he is the greatest Wildcat of all time. Elliot averaged 19 points a game for coach Olson and was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs that following summer. His jersey now hangs proudly on the McKale Center walls. Nobody could forget the chants of “Steeevvvveeeeeee Kerrrrrrrrr” echoing throughout McKale Center. Kerr was lights-out from three point range and averaged about 13 points per game. Number 25′s jersey was also retired. Kerr was drafted by the Bulls and played alongside the legend himself, Michael Jordan. Playing alongside Kerr and Elliot were Tom Tolbert and Craig McMillian both of which were productive scorers for the ‘Cats. The tall, lengthy Anthony Cook was a workhorse on the offensive and defensive boards. This Arizona team finished the season with an impressive 31-2 record and went undefeated at home. They fell to then top-ranked Oklahoma in the Final Four.
1996-1997 Arizona Wildcats
Even though this team gave Tucson and the University its first championship, was it truly the most talented? Possibly. The 1997 magical tournament run by the ‘Cats will never be forgotten. Three number one seeds went down and Arizona was able to pull of an 84-79 win in the National Championship game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. It is a team that almost every person in Tucson knows. Coach Lute Olson really completed his legacy as a Hall of Fame coach with his signature NCAA tournament championship. The 1996-1997 Wildcats were a complete team. Mike Bibby, whose jersey hangs on the McKale Center walls, was a real-time point guard. His ability to pass in traffic and drive to the rim made him a true team player. Bibby was also red-hot from three point range. Jason Terry, who is still playing in the NBA, was a lights-out shooter and a vocal leader most of the time, especially in tough situations. Terry was a key reserve for Coach Olson and provided valuable minutes immediately off the bench. Center AJ Bramlett was a force inside and contributed significantly with rebounds throughout the season (6.9 average per game). Bennett Davidson was a solid contributor and got the Wildcats off to a good start in the championship game. Davidson was also a fantastic rebounder. Michael Dickerson led the ‘Cats in scoring by dropping an average of 18.9 points per game. Who could forget Miles Simon? He did it all for the ‘Cats in the tournament and had the height (6’5) to be a shooting guard and small forward. He also had an average of 18.4 points per game throughout the season. This was a complete team. They had a true point guard (Bibby), productive scorers in Simon and Dickerson, forces inside with Davidson and Bramlett, and a key reserve in Jason Terry.
2013-2014 Arizona Wildcats
It’s a great time to be an Arizona fan, not just because they have started the season with a school record 20 straight wins, but because they have everyone in Tucson (and in the country) believing. This team is the real deal. Are they the best EVER? It really depends on who you ask. ESPN college basketball analyst, Seth Greenberg said earlier in November that Arizona has the most complete team in the country. “Each person on the starting lineup plays a significant role and is very unselfish,” Greenberg said. This statement couldn’t have described this year’s Arizona Wildcats any better. The ‘Cats have now been ranked number one in the polls for eight consecutive weeks and are only one of three undefeated teams left in college basketball. TJ McConnell is the definition of a true point guard, which is something that Arizona has lacked for the past couple of years. He is able to pass the ball and lead the floor like no other and has improved his three point shot throughout the season. The Duquesne transfer makes it look easy. Nick Johnson is a true leader on the court and has already gotten some national attention for the Wooden Award given to the ‘most outstanding basketball player in the United States’. He is the glue that keeps the team together. His athleticism and quickness make him the perfect shooting guard for Sean Miller’s offense. Johnson also leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.7 points per game. Freshman phenom Aaron Gordon has already lived up to the high expectations he had coming into his first season. Enjoy him while you can, he probably will be a top draft pick come summer time. His freakish ability to get to the basket has defenses in a craze when trying to contain him. The powerful moves, the finesse finishes, and the long wingspan make him a human highlight reel. Sports Center should just have a segment called “Aaron Gordon’s Top Plays”. He is a huge boost on both sides of the floor and can play multiple positions when needed. Enjoy him while you can. Brandon Ashley‘s physical presence down low and on defense are one of the keys to Arizona’s success. He has range and can also do wonders down low. His humble presence on the court is special and plays with extreme passion. Possibly one of the most improved players this season is Kaleb Tarzcewski, ‘Zeus’ is tougher down low and has worked the glass to help make the ‘Cats one of the best rebounding teams in the country. A “complete” team isn’t complete without key reserves. Gabe York has stepped up his sophomore year and makes the three point shot look like a piece of cake. His slick passing also keeps the offense running smoothly. Then there’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who has been another key contributor off the bench. His acrobatic moves around the basket keep defenses on their heels all day long. So, is this a complete basketball team? Absolutely. Is it the greatest team ever? We’ll have to wait and see how far they go. The last month of the season could be tough with road games in Eugene, Seattle, and Boulder but for the time being, things are looking promising for the young Wildcats. Hop on the bandwagon.