No NCAAs for First Time In 25 Years
By Lance Epstein
TUCSON, Ariz.—The only chance the Arizona Wildcats (16-15, 10-8) had at making the NCAA Tournament field for the 26th straight year was to win the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament. That pipedream quickly vanished as the UCLA Bruins ended those hopes by beating the Wildcats 75-69 on Thursday afternoon at the Staples Center.
It is over. Done. Fineto. Gone. Terminado. C'est fait. O-V-E-R. However you want to say it or whatever language, the nation best 25 straight NCAA tournament appearances have come to a screeching halt in the Pac-10 quarterfinals. This marks fourth straight year the Wildcats have been eliminated before reaching the second round.
"Everybody knew from the beginning of the season that it would be tough,” said Nic Wise, one of three returning players who contributed to Arizona’s Sweet 16 team last year. “We barely made it last year, so it would be even tougher this year. It's just been a great accomplishment, and it's tough to have it end this year."
While UA fans sit in disappointment as this March they will not be able to participate in the madness. Even with the dismay of missing the NCAAs for the first time in a quarter decade, the Wildcats are still expected to receive a bid to the NIT tournament.
"Unfortunately, it's not the NCAA tournament, but we're going to take what we can get," junior forward Jamelle Horne said.
With that said, Arizona has no one to blame but themselves who allowed the Bruins to shoot 64 percent from the field in the first half and Reeves Nelson to dominate the glass.
At halftime, the Wildcats were lucky to find themselves only down by four points, 37-33. As the second half played out, the Cats had numerous opportunities to take control of the game but failed to get any closer than three points.
Every time the Cats made it into a one-possession game, Nelson countered with an easy put back or Roll nailed a clutch shot. Even worse, when the Wildcats played good defense for most of the 35-second shot clock, they were called for fouls.
For UCLA they have denied the evitable by moving onto semifinals, where the Golden Bears are most likely going to demolish them.
But this afternoon, the Bruins survived to live another day mainly because of the return of Nelson. He chipped in 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting and added 11 rebounds.
For the past two weeks, the Bruins played without Nelson who was recovering from surgery that repaired a torn retina. During that span, the Bruins lost three of four games.
Although against the Wildcats, Nelson in his protective glasses, which he obtained from the hometown Los Angeles Lakers, appeared to transform into UCLA’s modern version of Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
His grittiness and toughness lifted the Bruins to their first victory over Arizona in their third try this season.
"My legs were all right,” Nelson said. “When I first came in, they were really tired, but I got my second wind pretty quickly.”
Besides Nelson’s dominance, his sidekicks Roll and Nikola Drgovic each contributed 18 points but more importantly Roll led the inspiration charge.
"As I was telling the guys, 'I'm just really not ready to go home,'" Roll said. "Being out there is fun."
For Arizona its two All-Pac-10 players, Wise who put in 16 points and Derrick Williams who finished with 14 led them.
The Wildcats attempted to make a comeback against the Bruins with 8:10 left to go in the second half. Freshman forward Solomon Hill made 1-of-2 free throws to cut the Bruins lead to three at 58-55.
On the following possession, Jamelle Horne fouled out of the game and the tide again turned in UCLA’s favor. A three-point discrepancy eventually expanded to a seven point lead for the Bruins as UCLA’s Malcolm Lee hit a three pointer. The three put UCLA’s up 64-57 with just over five minutes left to play.
The Wildcats made one last push to catch the Bruins with 1:55 minutes left in the game. Hill stole the ball, went coast to coast and jammed the Wildcats to within five points.
Unfortunately for Arizona, Kyle Fogg, Williams and the Wildcats had their chances to pull within two but just could not knock down a three pointer.
After the loss, Miller talked about the streak Lute Olson started and being left out of the NCAA selection show for the first time since 1985; a year in which Miller stated he was learning how to drive.
"Any coach that comes to Arizona is going to find he's a paranoid coach," said Miller. "The reason I came to Arizona is to rebuild our program. We have a possibility to get a NIT bid. It's a terrific tournament. I feel very, very good about what we've been able to accomplish."
Senior Wise will never have another chance to make a run at the National Championship, but young players like Momo Jones are taking a positive outlook on the situation and know hope springs eternal next year.
"That's what everybody talks about," Jones said. "That's the history of the program and the culture of the program, and we just have to understand that.
“Unfortunately, we're not going to make it this year, but I guarantee we're going to get back there next year."
Losing is never easy for Cats fans to accept and certainly they will be upset and frustrated for the next seven months. Despite the doom and gloom, Jones has provided a silver lining for the Wildcat faithful. Making that kind of a guarantee is a good thing.
Jones appears to have become the vocal leader and heir apparent to Wise. He anointed the pressure squarely on the shoulders of himself and his teammates to get better this offseason.
How can the Wildcats get better? Miller’s short press conference words on his team’s struggles sums up the first place they should start.
"We're not a good defensive team," Miller said. "We'll be better in the future."
Of course the freshmen will become sophomores and that will indeed help to improve the team defense. Meanwhile the growing pains they endured this past season are daily reminders for the players coming back next year.
Permitting the Bruins to shoot 64 percent in the first half cost Arizona a chance to be dancing. Also, Lee nailing the pivotal three-pointer to practically seal the game at 64-57 will linger in their thoughts.
Those growing pains will stay in their psyche. They will motivate the talented but youthful Cats to work harder in the off-season to develop into a superior defensive team.
Another area that was a visible weakness for the Wildcats was their transition defense. Looking at the box score, the shocking stat is UCLA committing four more turnovers than Arizona (15-to-11). More stunning, Arizona only committed two turnovers in the second half.
A problem with stats is that they do not tell the whole story. Even though Arizona had four less turnovers, UCLA outscored the UA in points off turnovers, 16-6. Players like Horne, Williams and even Wise were slow to get back in transition, which provided the Bruins easy baskets and killed any momentum the Wildcats built.
Another one of the key issues that consistently befuddled Arizona throughout the course of the season was rebounding. There are two ways this is going to be fixed.
First, Arizona must land either a JUCO center/power forward or a young talented high school player by the name of Kadeem Jack out of New York.
Jack is a 6-8, 210 pound power forward, much in the mold of Pac-10 Freshmen of the Year Williams. No high school player in the country has seen his stock raise over the last couple months like Jack. On a nightly basis, he has dominated some of the top inside players coming out of high school.
Arizona started recruiting Jack before his explosion onto the scene, but now the competition for his services have become stiffer. UCLA, Florida, Pittsburgh and West Virginia have recently entered the picture. Yet, Arizona is still considered to be the favorite to land Jack.
Second, Kyryl Natyazhko has to develop. Natyazhko was a late addition to the Arizona recruiting class but was considered to be a top 100 prospect according to Scouts.com.
At times this past season Natyazhko exhibited glimpses of his talent, but is still very raw. He must get stronger to take up space in the paint, work on his post moves and improve his defense so he can be a shot blocking presence.
However, the only thing that the Wildcats cannot work on and improve is experience. Unfortunately as we saw this season, experience in Miller’s offense and in college basketball just comes with time.
For years fans took for granted Lute Olson’s ability to mold young teams and consistently make the tournament. This is what happens in normal programs; there is a drop off. In retrospect, that 1997 team that won with a freshman point guard in Mike Bibby looks even more remarkable.
Arizona has a bright future ahead of them, with seven players who are freshmen and sophomores playing significant minutes. Yes it stings right now to be a Wildcats fan and see your in-state rival, Arizona State possibly make the NCAA Tournament (probably not after ASU lost to Stanford…the night got a little better—called this upset in my Pac-10 preview).
Consider this, last April Arizona was desolate and depleted with Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill declared for the draft and Wise being on the fence about returning. Now the future of Arizona basketball is on the right path with up and coming stars like Momo Jones and Williams carrying the torch into Miller’s second season as head coach.