March Madness had a new meaning for AZ fans this year

And then there were none.

The Arizona State women’s basketball loss Friday in the opening round of the WNIT means there are no Arizona Division I college teams playing in the post-season.  Anywhere.

And the 77-62 loss to University of Pacific brings to an end perhaps the strangest season ever for Arizona college hoops.

Actually, strange might be too kind a description.  Disappointing would probably be more accurate.  Or, then again, pathetic would be spot-on.

Only two teams out of the six Division I schools in the state could muster post-season invitations, and those were to the second-tier NIT and WNIT tourneys.  And both teams, the ASU women and University of Arizona men, had 20-win seasons.  Arizona was even the No. 1 seed.

And neither team could past their first game.  The Wildcat men lost to No. 8-seed Bucknell, 65-54.  They played without starting point guard, Josiah Turner, who was suspended just prior to the first game of the tournament.

But the Sun Devil women actually played without their head coach this season.  Charli Turner Thorne took the year off to recharge her batteries and her top assistant, Joe Anders, took the reins for the 2011-2012 season.

The ASU men never did get on track this season.  It began on a down note when incoming 4-star point guard, Jahii Carson, was ruled ineligible for the season.  The rest of the way was plagued with inconsistent play and injuries; head coach Herb Sendek put 11 different starting line-ups on the floor, but nothing seemed to work.

ASU played the season without a senior on the roster – just one of nine D-I programs in the country in that situation.

The season hit a low point when the Devils scored just eight first-half points in a loss to Washington State in mid-February.  They finished the season 10-21.

And the Wildcat women were yet another mystery this season.  They got off to an 11-1 start, the best opening in more than a decade, and then went into a tailspin that started at the end of December with the first of two losses to rival Arizona State.

The rest of the way, they won just three conference games and finished in the Pac-12 cellar.

Head coach Niya Butts has been working at this rebuilding thing down in Tucson for four years now, after arriving from Kentucky where she was an assistant in that storied program.  After struggling for the first two years, she took the Cats to a 20-12 mark her third year, earning a spot in the WNIT (which resulted in a first-round exit).  But it was still the first post-season appearance in a decade.

This year was supposed to be a continuation of that progress and, for awhile, it looked like that was where things were going.  The women won their first five games, averaging nearly 80 points a game.

But the final result was a 15-17 season that included just three conference wins.

Up north, things were no better as both of Northern Arizona‘s basketball programs were running on fumes by the time the season ended.  Together, they won just 14 games all season.  The men finished conference play 1-15 for last place, while the women went 4-12 to finish just one rung above the men.

But it was the men’s team that got off to a truly unusual – and devastating – start when head coach Mike Adras resigned just nine games into the season, and left so suddenly he didn’t have a chance to tell his players.  He was replaced immediately by Dave Brown as the interim head coach.  The 70-year-old Brown had been the NAU women’s coach back in the ’80s – but hadn’t coached college ball since then.

(It’s all true… you can’t make this stuff up.)

Brown won big in his first game on the bench, but things went south pretty quickly after that as the Jacks lost their last 16 games – despite the fact that they had the Big Sky Freshman of the Year on the floor.  James Douglas led the team in scoring, steals, and three-pointers.

The women fell short of last years’ dismal finish in which they won 11 games.  This is a team that had consecutive 20-win seasons five years ago, but haven’t been even able to reach the .500 plateau since then.

This year, they weren’t able to put together more than two wins at a time, and suffered through a nine-game losing streak in the middle of the season.

Overall, it’s been an overwhelmingly disappointing experience being a big-college basketball fan in Arizona this season.  But there are signs of promise for next year.

Sendek will have an ASU team with a legitimate point guard, who has had a year to mature, and will have some senior leadership on the floor.  And the women’s team will have a rested and rejuvenated Turner Thorne back on the bench.

Miller will unveil his new No. 1 recruiting class in Tucson – and hopefully have things straightened out with his top recruit from the previous class.

And Northern Arizona will have a new men’s basketball coach, giving Dave Brown a chance to get back up into the NAU broadcast booth, where he was enjoying retirement from coaching before getting the urgent call back to the court.

That just leaves head coach Laurie Kelly at NAU and Butts at Arizona to figure out how to get their respective women’s teams back in the game.

Their only consolation this year is that they have a lot of company to share the misery.

And, unfortunately, that includes the fans.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)