The University of Arizona: A decade of disappointment

Photo via Robert Hanashiro

In 2001, the University of Arizona competed in the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championshipin which they lost 82-72 to Duke. This was the zenith of the decade for the Wildcats, who would spend the rest of the decade without a Final Four appearance. They had good but not great seasons, entered tournaments as a middling seed and failed to breakthrough and become a real national contender. The following decade for Arizona was supposed to be this breakthrough. Many seasons carried heavy expectations, which is what made this an even more disappointing decade than the 2000s.

2009-2010: A New Era

Before the 2009-10 season, Sean Miller was hired as head coach, and with him came hope for a new era. Arizona fans had hope that this could be the big breakthrough they had been looking for, yearning to regain some of the glory of the 2001 season.

This was the freshman year of future NBA players Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill. This team was also led by senior guard Nic Wise and sophomore guard Kyle Fogg, who were solid college guards for this team. The team was young overall, and this team was not ranked in the preseason, so expectations for this season were not particularly high.

The Wildcats went 16-15 and missed the tournament for the first time since 1984. Coach Miller’s tenure was off to a rough start, but it was understood that this team was young and not ready to be competitive on the national stage at this time.

2010-2011: Expectations Established

In 2010, the team returned with almost the same tools as the last season, but with a little more experience and a little more belief. Because of the previous season and no major changes, Arizona began the year unranked.

Williams established himself as a great college player in his freshman campaign, and in his sophomore year, he became a player of the year candidate, as he averaged almost 20 points and eight rebounds a game. Sophomore guard MoMo Jones replaced Wise in the starting lineup, and things were just as smooth with Jones running the offense. The Wildcats went from being 105th in points per game to 24th, establishing themselves as a dangerous offensive team.

The team was 27-7 entering the tournament, and were awarded the five-seed. They opened with a two-point win over a tough Memphis team, then followed that up by upsetting four-seeded Texas 70-69 to make the second week of the tournament. In the Sweet Sixteen, facing Kyrie Irving and first-seeded Duke, Williams outdueled Kyrie with 32 points to lead the Wildcats to a 93-77 win. This was the breakthrough Wildcat fans had been wanting for so long. Unfortunately, the run would end in the next round, losing 65-63 in a heartbreaking game to Kemba Walker and the eventual champions in the University of Connecticut Huskies.

With Williams heading to the draft and a heartbreaking loss still fresh, Arizona was heading into the next season with lowered expectations. However, this season was a big step for the program, and signified good things to come in the future.

2011-2012: A Blip on the Road to Glory

Top scorers in Williams and Jones were gone, but this team still garnered preseason respect, as they ranked 16th in the nation.

The offense fell outside of the top 100, the defense was far from elite and the team went 23-11. They missed the NCAA tournament and instead lost to Bucknell in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament. This marked the second time in three years that Miller failed to take this powerhouse program to the big dance, but due to the great performance the year they did make it, hope remained that Miller could still be the answer. The problem with the team had never been having good regular seasons, but having deep tournament runs. The Wildcats may have gotten slightly worse in the past three seasons, but the capability to have an Elite Eight run as a four-seed was an encouraging sign of tournament success.

2012-2013: A Real Tournament Threat

This season began much better than the last, getting a high-impact transfer in senior Mark Lyons. They also got three top-15 recruits in forward Brandon Ashley, center Kaleb Tarczewski, and forawrd Grant Jerrett. Due to the influx of talent, the team was ranked 13th in the preseason.

The team was 25-7 heading into the tournament and had regained a top-50 offense. Lyons and sophomore guard Nick Johnson established a good backcourt, both averaging double figures. Senior forward Solomon Hill was averaging 13-5-3, and the freshman had played well and made some impact on the team. As a six-seed in the tournament, they beat 11-seeded Belmont 81-64, followed by a 74-51 blowout over 14-seeded Harvard. They would eventually fall to second-seeded Ohio State 73-70 in the Sweet 16.

Though Arizona didn’t beat a great team in the tournament, they had once again outperformed their seed. They also lost another very close game to a very good team, giving more credence to the idea that Sean Miller was a great coach in the tournament setting. This was what the program had been hoping for heading into the decade, and the future seemed very bright for this up and coming team.

2013-2014: This is our Year

The team parlayed a successful 2012-13 into a hugely successful prospect class. They added freshmen forwards Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, as well as transfer junior guard TJ McConnell. The team had transformed into a young juggernaut, with multiple top-15 recruits each of the past two years. Anchored by established junior guards Nick Johnson and McConnell, the team was ranked sixth heading into the year.

The sixth ranking would end up being the lowest Arizona would receive, reaching number one mid-season and entering the tournament as the third overall seed. The once-great offense was now a top-10 defense, and the 30-4 Wildcats were entering the tournament with hopes of a championship. After beating the fourth-seeded San Diego State Aztecs in the Sweet Sixteen, Arizona lost to a great Wisconsin team 64-63 in overtime.

It was heartbreaking to come so close to the Final Four, but this was obviously a great year for the team. They established themselves as a top program deserving of top recruits each year, and again, looking to the future was still a comforting sight for fans of the team.

2014-2015: Sorry, THIS is our Year

Arizona lost Gordon to the draft, but replaced him with Stanley Johnson, who ended up almost matching Gordon statistically. For everyone else on the team, it was another year of getting better, plus experience and a hunger to go all the way in the tournament. They were ranked second heading into the season.

The Wildcats went 31-3, were top-25 in both offense and defense, but only got a two-seed in the tournament because they were ranked fifth overall. Once again, they faced Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. This was the rematch that Arizona had wanted all year. Unfortunately, they came up short once again, falling 85-78. Wisconsin would go on to beat an undefeated Kentucky team before losing in the championship game.

The Elite Eight was proving to be the ceiling for this team, and while this is a great result, it was demoralizing having a top-five team two years in a row and being unable to breakthrough into the Final Four for the first time since 2001.

2015-2016: Retool and Move Forward

The team lost almost every single starter to the draft, and were now comprised of senior center Tarczewski, freshman guard Allonzo Trier, junior guard Kadeem Allen and a senior frontcourt of solid college players averaging 15 apiece. They were 12th in the preseason, so high expectations persisted despite having a much worse roster than previous years.

Arizona went 25-8 heading into the tournament, and were ranked 15th . Despite the high ranking, they were a six-seed. This team was ranked all year and had performed well, again a top-25 offense. Despite the good year, they lost to 11-seeded Wichita State 65-55 in the first round. They were heading in the wrong direction; they hadn’t lost to any bad teams in previous years, but they hadn’t beaten a top-three seed in the tournament in five years either. They couldn’t break through in big games, and now they were losing to double-digit seeds. The roster really wasn’t great this season, so maybe this just wasn’t destined to be their year anyway.

2016-2017: Renewed Hope of a Title

This team lost its solid frontcourt, but they added freshman Lauri Markkanen, a great consolation prize. The rest of the team remained the same, with the addition of a few other productive freshmen. Despite the disappointment of the previous season, they were ranked 12th in the preseason.

The Wildcats had a great season, going 30-4 throughout the year. They were ranked seventh heading into the tournament, despite having the 101st best offense and 40th best defense. As a two-seed, they once again were positioned to compete for a championship. However, in the Sweet Sixteen, they fell to 11-seeded Xavier 73-71. Another year, another loss to an 11-seed.

2017-2018: Maybe this contender notion is a bit overplayed…

The team got a gift in the form of freshman Deandre Ayton, was paired with Trier, along with solid role players Dusan Ristic and Rawle Alkins. This roster came with expectations. Looking back at the past four years, this team had made two Elite Eights, earned a top two-seed three times and were still a top program that felt they were in contention for a title. A preseason ranking of third was proof of this.

The team was slightly disappointing, finishing their season going 27-7. Notably, three of those losses came in an early season tournament, a big warning sign for the future. Ayton led the Wildcats to a top-50 offense, but the team struggle on defense. They entered the tournament as a dangerous four-seed, with a player many thought could be the top pick in the draft. This ended up coming true, but the danger of this team did not similarly come to fruition. They fell in the first round to 13-seeded Buffalo 89-68, an absolutely brutal loss to yet another double-digit seed. This was by far the worst loss of the decade for the Wildcats, and it came at the tail end of their run of great seasons. They had squandered yet another top recruit, and had now lost to double-digit seeds in three straight seasons. After this, the wind had really been taken out of the sails of the Arizona Wildcats and their fans.

2018-2019: We told you

Before this year the team failed to land a top-30 recruit, and they had lost their two leading scorers Ayton and Trier to the NBA. They were never ranked throughout the whole season, finished 17-15, and didn’t qualify for any postseason play. When a great program squanders multiple top recruits, they stop getting these recruits and they suffer mediocre seasons. Arizona had to pay the price, and this was the season when it really fell apart for the Wildcats.

2019-2020: Maybe this will be our decade?

Despite the disappointing previous year, Arizona was able to land three fantastic recruits in Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion, and Josh Green. They struggled to meet expectations being such a young team, but Arizona was 21-11 when play stopped due to COVID-19 and they were looking like a sleeper team heading into March. They were projected to be a 10-seed, but some believed they had a chance to win a couple of games in the tournament. The big victory to take from this year is that Arizona is still a very relevant team to top recruits, and heading into the next decade, they should have plenty of talent to build title-contending teams.

Overall, the decade ended with Arizona reaching three Elite Eights, but they were unable to breakthrough into a Final Four. They had many great teams, being a top-two seed in three different seasons. During the first half of the decade, they only lost in the tournament to great teams, and they usually lost in very close fashion. There was a lot of hope at this time, as they continually put themselves in contention and only needed one of these tight games to go their way to have a real moment in March. After failing to do this on so many occasions, the team began to erode and continuously lost to double-digit seeds. Heading into the 2020’s, the team remains a powerhouse that can get top recruits any year. They had better stability earlier in the decade when they had players that stayed for multiple years, but that is just the nature of college basketball at the moment.

Will the next decade bring a championship to Arizona? Hopefully, they can finally capitalize on team with immense talent, win a tight game against a great opponent, and reach stages of the tournament they haven’t reached since 2001.

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