Final home game marks passing of Lute Olson era at UA

There will be a “Red Out” in the stands at McKale Center today for the University of Arizona basketball game…and a “Gray Out” on the floor.

Today’s game with UCLA, the final home game on the schedule, is the one the Wildcats selected to wear their new Nike Hyper Elite Platinum uniforms, identifying them as one of nine major college programs that have won national championships while wearing the shoe maker’s line of apparel.

(*Update: The Wildcats may have just punched their ticket to next month’s Big Dance, as they held on to a slim late lead in a game that went down to a final shot by UCLA and emerged with a critical victory, 65-63.)

OK, so the color is supposed to be platinum.  But they will look gray when the CBS cameras puts the game on national TV.

Arizona was one of the schools chosen to debut the regular Nike Hyper Elite uniforms last year, and has also helped the company market other Nike uniform ‘innovations’ several years ago.  So this is nothing new to the Tucson school with the high national profile.

Sure, it’s a shameless Nike marketing gimmick, but the Wildcats are evidently grooving on it.  They have even put a special display case in the gym to give fans a closer look at the actual uniforms.

In a recent edition of the Wildcat Wednesday newsletter, athletic director Greg Byrne called it an honor to be a part of the uniform debut, noting its indirect benefit to the recruiting effort.

“Our winning partnership with Nike has long put us at the forefront of the college basketball landscape,” he penned.  “This is just another example of the power of the Arizona brand and the loyalty displayed by our fans.”

Oh yeah, let’s not forget about the game.

The final home game starts at noon, when the Cats try to wrap up enough wins to secure a bid to post-season play.  They just picked up the magical win No. 20 by beating the hapless Trojans of USC, 70-54.  USC has won just one conference game all season and provided little more than a tune-up for today’s match with UCLA (16-12, 9-6).

And, oh by the way, after Nike gets their time in the spotlight, the school will honor its graduating seniors in a ceremony following the game.  Five seniors will be playing their final games at McKale.

The group includes Kyle Fogg, Alex Jacobson, Brendon Lavender, Jesse Perry, and Dondre Wise.

Perhaps the most poignant part of this ceremony, which lies below the surface, is the final transition from the Lute Olson era.  The Hall of Fame coach led the Cats for nearly a quarter of a century before health issues forced him to step down just before the 2008-09 season amid an NCAA investigation that later resulted in penalties and upheaval in the storied program.

The final three Olson recruits – Jacobson, Lavender, and Fogg – will be stepping off the roster at the end of this season, leaving Sean Miller with a full contingent of his own making.

But that end may be a way down the road yet.  There’s the Pac-12 Tournament and then, hopefully, a berth in the NCAA Tournament.  Last year the Cats made it to the Big Dance and fell just two points short of making it into the Final Four, losing in the West Regional to eventual champion, Connecticut, 65-63.

But today, the opponent is UCLA – which has proven to be a tough close lately.  The Bruins have won the last two, the most recent earlier this season when the Cats fell on the road, 65-58.  UCLA also has the momentum from coming off a win, beating Arizona State in Tempe Thursday night, 66-57.

The Cats got some good scoring output in their Thursday game against USC, as Fogg led the way with 16 points and the freshman guard, Josiah Turner, added 15 more.  Fogg also snared a career-high 12 rebounds, and Turner added six assists to the overall effort.

But that was USC, who everybody beats this year.  The Bruins will be a different story.

And the Cats’ record of success in final home games hasn’t been too good either in recent years.  They’ve won just three of the last six.

Maybe the platinum unis will help.  After all, Nike says they’re ‘tailored for optimal efficiency of movement’ and are supposed to be five percent lighter than their regular uniforms.

That, and about 75 points on the board, is all the Cats should need.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)