As Nick Johnson’s late shot missed the basket Saturday night in Anaheim, the initial reaction of all Arizona fans were the same: No. It’s impossible. This team is too good to lose. This was our year to go to Dallas. Everything was falling into place. All of the signs were pointing in the right direction. It was a sense of shock and disbelief slowly turning into anger and sadness. Yes, we know how hard it was to watch the end of that game. Arizona was one point (or one controversial call) away from the Final Four. The 2013-2014 season was the best the city of Tucson has seen in a long time. Now that it has come to an abrupt end, let’s put things into perspective and take a look at what this team accomplished. Here is some food for thought:
1. The Wildcats’ overall season record was 33-5. They had the best start in program history, were ranked at the top of the AP Poll for eight consecutive weeks, and led the nation in RPI. Anyone that doesn’t think thats impressive clearly doesn’t know college basketball. THIRTY wins. Sean Miller has clearly raised the bar. This was the second season that Miller’s team posted 30 wins in Tucson.
2. Arizona beat quality teams. Towards the beginning of the season, the Wildcats pulled off a 69-60 win over a tough San Diego State team at Viejas Arena and survived a scare at last year’s national runner-up, Michigan. In the NIT at Madison Square Garden, Arizona beat a quality Duke program that included future NBA player and freshman phenom, Jabari Parker. The ‘Cats also won a battle in Westwood at UCLA, which made it to the Sweet Sixteen.
3. We enjoyed Aaron Gordon while we could. It would be a total shock if the freshman sensation did not declare for this year’s NBA Draft. Fans and coaches are prepared for his departure during the off-season. It was an absolute show watching him play. His athletic ability is second to none, his huge wingspan swatting shots out of mid-air, and his rim-rattling dunks will certainly be missed. The term “Lob Desert” will not be the same. It’ll certainly be a treat to see him in the NBA but deep down we all wish he’d stay in Tucson for another year.
4. Sean Miller is an elite college basketball coach. Is he Coach K? No, but he has certainly solidified his title as ‘elite’. There most definitely is not a coach better than Miller on the West Coast. Mark Few? Please. In his five years at Arizona, Miller has taken two teams to the Elite Eight and one to the Sweet Sixteen. He has set the bar very high at Arizona. The caliber of recruits coming into Tucson has never been better and he will have a steady amount of top athletes playing for him for years to come. His coaching style and game plans are some of the best in the country.
5. Nick Johnson can do it all. Sure, he missed the game-winning shot on Saturday night, but he slowly turned himself into the face of the program. He was “Mr. Clutch” for the Wildcats this season, PAC-12 Player of the Year, and a Wooden Award finalist. Pretty hard to beat that. His energy and speak fueled the ‘Cats for most of the season. I’m not saying he IS the whole team, I’m saying he is the leader of the team. There will be a lot of talk within the next few weeks whether of not if Johnson will be returning for his senior season in Tucson. He is most definitely NBA-ready but he has a chance to close out an unforgettable legacy if he returns. Johnson is one of the most productive players in Arizona history. Could his jersey be hanging on the McKale walls down the road if he stays?
6. The PAC-12 is underrated. How many teams did it have in the tournament this year? SIX. Thats a lot more than experts were predicting before the season started. Obviously Arizona is the cream of the crop but UCLA and Stanford really surprised the nation in the tournament this year. The PAC-12 never really gets all the attention it deserves; could it compete with other conferences in college basketball?
7. The loss of Brandon Ashley hurt more than ever. When Brandon Ashley went down with a broken foot in the Wildcat’s first loss of the season at Cal, there were so many questions to be answered. The city of Tucson stopped breathing for a moment.Who will fill in? How will the rotation be affected? Is our season done? The first few games after Ashley’s injury were tough. Arizona was trying to adjust to a new rotation and slightly altered offense. Eventually, the ‘Cats found their stride and picked up the slack towards the second half of the season. Looking back at the season, having Ashley in the lineup would most likely have the Wildcats playing in Dallas. He is a difference-maker, rebounder, and shot blocker. For a team losing a significant player like Ashley, Arizona fared very well and might have surpassed expectations. The good news is that Ashley will be back in Tucson for his junior season.
8. The Wildcat freshmen stepped up when they were needed most (after the Ashley injury). Not much was known about Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the beginning of the season. He was a McDonalds All-American but nobody expected him to be in the spotlight so quickly. Hollis-Jefferson was thrown into the regular rotation and started many games since the Ashley injury. Since then, his growth as a basketball player has been impressive. He arguably has the most energy and hustle on the roster and his acrobatic moves to the basket have already drawn the attention of NBA scouts. As of now, it is likely we will see Hollis-Jefferson again in a Wildcat uniform. Eliot Pitts came off the bench to relieve an already thin rotation towards the middle of the season. Pitts hit a few big three pointers in the tournament and steadily improved his shot as the season progressed.
9. Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York have improved immensely since their freshmen year. A couple months back, I wrote an article highlighting the improvement Tarczewski had made over the season. The two most obvious things he improved: free throws and his aggressiveness. Last year Tarczewski was not a consistent free throw shooter. Now he is one of the best on the team. Fans don’t have to bite their nails when he approaches the charity stripe. He also was not afraid to go up to the rim this season, thus drawing more fouls and putting points on the board with free throws. Lastly, his shooting range has grown over the season. Gabe York had limited playing time last year. His patience paid off this season as he became responsible for many “Lob Desert” plays and dishing out some great passes. He also became a consistent sharp-shooter for the ‘Cats and also started a few games.
10. The Final Four is in Indianapolis next year. Sound familiar? That’s the same city that Arizona won it all in 1997. Of course, the games will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium, not the RCA Dome but Indianapolis has been a friendly city for the Wildcats in the past. Next year looks like it will be a strong one. The Wildcats have ESPN Top 10 recruit, Stanley Johnson coming in and will keep a good amount of their roster. Of course, knowing if Nick Johnson or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are coming back is unknown for sure. Productive passer TJ McConnell still has a year of eligibility left. There’s your point guard. Stanley Johnson, Gabe York, and possibly Johnson will be back as guards. Brandon Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson would be the forwards. Kaleb Tarczewski and newcomer Duran Ristic will be the big men. Of course, this is all tentative but whichever way you look at it, Arizona has potential to be a pre-season number one pick and a Final Four team. There will be riots for the right reasons next season. Quite a few.