The difference between this year’s University of Arizona men’s basketball team, a No. 2 seed that was just eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the third round, and next year’s squad? It’s the difference between coulda and shoulda.
Everyone knew this team could make it to the Final Four. But next year’s team should make it to the Final Four – and possibly even beyond that. The Wildcats lose just one key player, guard Kadeem Allen, to graduation – and welcome what could be the programs’ best-ever recruiting class.
But that’s little consolation for head coach Sean Miller and the 16 players on this year’s roster who had high hopes of getting to play in front of a ‘home’ crowd in one of college sports’ biggest events. This year, the Final Four will be played in Glendale at University of Phoenix Stadium, a two-hour drive from Tucson.
And just as important, perhaps, was the chance to claim the first Final Four appearance in Miller’s 13 years as a college head coach, the last eight of which have been spent in Tucson. Miller’s teams have made it to the Elite Eight four times, but never broke through the ceiling to the next round. This was his seventh Sweet Sixteen, five of those at Arizona.
“Our journey ends at the Sweet Sixteen,’ Miller said in his post-game press conference. “It’s hard to look at that as not getting it done or a failure, but our goal and aspiration is always to challenge for the Final Four, or get there, and we pulled up short.”
Pulling up short in this case was a matter of inches. Down by two points with eight seconds to go, Arizona’s hopes for moving on to the Elite Eight were riding on a three-point attempt by Allonzo Trier. The shot rimmed the iron and the rebound was grabbed by Xavier, which was able to run out the clock.
The 73-71 loss ended a season in which the Wildcats posted a 32-5 record and won both the Pac-12 championship and the Pac-12 tournament. It was stunned by a Cinderella team that was seeded No. 11 in the West Region and had lost six of its final seven regular-season games.
Trier’s lack of success with the final shot was symbolic of the problems that plagued the Cats throughout the game. They shot an uncharacteristic 7-for-27 from behind the arc. Arizona’s poor shooting from outside was a major reason the Musketeers’ zone was effective.
“Our team never really ever established great confidence against the zone,” said Miller, referring not just to Thursday’s game, but a good part of the season as well. “I think, in some ways, that was the reason, defensively (against Xavier), we weren’t as good as we usually are.”
Xavier shot 37.5% (6-for-16) from three range, but they were very efficient from the field, hitting 53 percent of their field-goal attempts.
Arizona had just two players in double figures, Trier (19) and Dusan Ristic (17), but won the battle of the boards, 35-27.
Both players could return next year. Ristic, the 7-foot center, is a junior and Trier is a sophomore, although he could leave early to test the draft waters. Ristic is one of two 7-footers on the roster. The other, Lauri Markkanen, is a freshman from Finland who isn’t far from the start of an NBA career either.
Trier led the team scoring this season with 17 points a game and Markkannen and Ristic together contributed 26.5 points a game.
If they stay around for next season, Miller will have three seven-footers to throw against opponents. Deandre Ayton, who for most of the year was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the nation, is a 7-footer who played his final high school year at Hillcrest Academy in Phoenix. Miller calls him a “once-in-a-generation” talent that has all the tools to compete at the college level and become an impact player right away.
Alex Barcello, a point guard from Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, was rated by ESPN as the No. 2 player in Arizona, behind Ayton. The other two members of the ESPN Top 100 that helped produce a 2017 recruiting class ranked third in the nation are Ira Lee and Brandon Randolph.
Lee is a 6’8″ forward who Miller offered a scholarship while Lee was just starting his prep career. Scout.com ranks him as a Top 10 power forward. Randolph, a 6’6″ guard from New York, was a Scout Top 10 shooting guard and an ESPN top-five in-state prospect.
“Wait until next year” is getting to be a worn-out mantra for Arizona fans who are hungry for a deeper run in March. But next year could be the season they’ve all been awaiting.
Of course, right now it’s hard to think that way after an earth-shaking first-round loss last season and a stunning earlier-than-expected departure from this year’s tourney.
It’s hard to get the psyche revved up again. We’ve been fooled too often.
(Photo: Stan Liu /Arizona Athletics)