The season isn't over. And that's great news if you're an Arizona Wildcat fan because Arizona has had a timultuous season to say the least. They have had more ups and downs than a Six Flags Theme Park throughout the year. Going back to when Ivan Radenovic, Mustafa Shakur, and Markus Williams all cleared out, Arizona fans have been anticipating the excitement that was supposed to be this season. They had Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill returning looking to improve off of good years. Jawann McClellan and Kirk Walters were both supposed to be up to full health again In addition they had the #5 recruiting class, which included Arizona native guard Jerryd Bayless. Most importantly Arizona had hired Kevin O'Neill as an assistant coach to be a defensive specialist. The intent was that he would shore up the gaps in Arizona's defense and make them tougher mentally. They've come a long way since then. What was believed to be a Top 25 team has stumble, sputtered, and struggled through the year, especially with the rigors of the PAC-10 conference.
The biggest blow is arguably the season-long leave of absence taken by Lute Olson which started just the day before Arizona's second exhibition game, against Team Georgia, and merely one week before tip-off of their non-conference schedule. Arizona players and fans alike were still optimistic about their season, despite not having their Hall of Fame coach at the helm, since O'Neill was a proven coach with NBA and college experience. O'Neill came under scrutiny quickly as he failed to lead Arizona past visiting Virginia, but the complaints were choked back. When Arizona failed to convert the game winning play, O'Neill was the one blamed. Despite his coaching performances, questionable decision making, and "Bozo the Clown" hair, Jim Livengood named O'Neill to be the successor when Olson does exit stage left for the final time. The debate about Lute's "heir" began and will continue until long after he is gone.
Despite not having Lute Olson leading the team, Arizona players showed a lot of grit. They played on, and they played hard. Arizona was 9-3, and ranked 17th in the nation, when they travelled to play Memphis. That's when the injuries started its route through the roster. During pre-game warm-ups Jerryd Bayless blew out his knee and would miss the next four games. Forward reserve, Bret Brielmaier, also found himself sidelined with a sprained shoulder, but he has only played one game since then. During the span of Bayless' absence Arizona lost three of their four games, with their one win coming at home against hapless Oregon State.
Things were looking up when Bayless returned. Arizona started to cruise, they won five of their next seven games, including four straight. Their two losses were against Stanford (by 4), and UCLA (by 22). The 22 point loss was the begining of another doward spiral. Before the next game it was declared that Nic Wise would be out with knee problems for several weeks. Arizona is a meager 2-5 since Wise went out. They have shown signs of life, however, playing UCLA, Stanford to the last possession, and ASU to the final minute. They also tacked on a win over #17. Washington State.
Adversity is a part of every team, and Arizona has had more than their fair share so far this year. But, Arizona's adversities have led them to where they are right now: squarely on the bubble with a chance to lock an NCAA Tournament birth. They are 17-12 overall, 7-9 in conference, and 6-6 in their last 12. They have amassed this record despite the adversities while facing the #1 Strength of Schedule, and holding a Top 25 ranking. If the NCAA Committee were to meet today and set the Tournament, chances are Arizona would be left out or be given entrance by the skin of their teeth. It would be a disappointing season filled with "what-ifs"... "What if Lute were coaching?" "What if Bayless or Wise hadn't been injured?" "What if O'Neill weren't a hack?" The list goes on. Some Arizona fans go from loving the team and O'Neill to hating them. Which means that in the 114 days Greg Hansen has jumped off the Arizona band wagon and back again at least 75 times.
Fortunately the season isn't over, Arizona has a chance to prove themselves yet again. This week they will travel to face the Oregon schools with a lot on the line. A loss to either team means that Arizona is firmly on the bubble and is at the mercy of the PAC-10 tournament performance. A sweep secures them. The great news? Arizona is expected to have Nic Wise and Bret Brielmaier back. Both have had full contact practices this week and are looking primed to go. Arizona is 15-5 this season when healthy, and that bodes well for their confidence. Arizona could be the "surprise" team now that they are back and healthy again. They have the capability of playing with anyone at anytime. I, for one, can't wait to see what happens. So, all you nay-sayers out there, back off! They've got a ton of talent, and they're finally healthy and are hungry to prove they are worthy to play in Tucson wearing navy and cardinal! Don't start your NIT road trip plans. They'll be dancing come March.