In about 30 minutes, the University of Arizona Wildcats will take on the University of Utah Utes in a first round game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. There is some controversy over this -- not that they will play a basketball game but that the Wildcats should be playing it.
The Wildcats have gone through a season of great turmoil en route to their 25th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. First, their Hall of Fame coach, Lute Olson, resigned just before the start of the season because of health reasons. He had been out the entire season before because of divorce reasons.
Russ Pennell, an extremely likable guy, took over the job of leading the Wildcats as interim coach. There was never any question about the interim part. Once the season was over, the Wildcats would bring in some rainmaker of a coach like Rick Pitino or Mark Few who could bring in some major recruits in a hurry. In the meantime, no recruiting at all went on this season. except for a JV transfer that one of the assistant coaches landed.
It has been an extremely erratic season for the Wildcats. If basketball were played by three-man teams, they would have been great. They had 6-11 Jordan Hill at Center, 6-8 Chase Buddinger at forward, and 5-7 Nic Wise at point guard. Unfortunately, the teams they played generally showed up with at least five players, which put the Wildcats at a disadvantage.
They beat some big-time teams, like defending national champion Kansas, Pac-10 Champion Washington, and high ranking squads like Gonzaga and UCLA. But they lost to run-of-the-mill teams like UNLV, New Mexico, and Stanford. In fact,, they lost to just about anyone that they played on the road, away from McKale Center in Tucson.
Their record at the end of the season was a mediocre 19-13, 9-9 in the Pac-10. Selection Sunday last week was a time of great angst for the Wildcat faithful. Would the team extend its streak of consecutive appearances in the Big Dance -- the longest among current teams?
They did, as a 12th seed. They'll be playing the "Utes" -- which apparently is the name of the tribe of Indians that Utah is named for. Utah is a 6th seed. This is the kind of situation that the Wildcats used to fall to frequently, getting knocked out in the first round by a lower seed -- except, of course, for the four times they went to the Final Four and the time in 1997 when they won the whole thing.
As an alum of hated Arizona State University, I have been amused at times this season at the woeful state of the Wildcats. ASU now has beaten them five straight times, including three times this season.
But I'm glad for the sake of this team and their extremely nice coach that they made it one more time to the Big Dance. And I hope they dance for a long time, until they play ASU sometime down the road. Then all bets are off.