Arizona's 25-year dance is finally over

Published March 12, 2010

| FoxSports

No good thing lasts forever.

In the case of Arizona's NCAA tournament streak, it was only a matter of time before things had to come to an end.

That's exactly what happened Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament, as the Wildcats said goodbye to a 25-year run in the Big Dance with a 75-69 loss to UCLA at Staples Center.

"We knew it would be tough," point guard Nic Wise said afterward.

Wise, in fact, might have known better than anyone else.

As Arizona's lone senior, he's had to play for four different coaches in four seasons.

During that span, he's watched teammates like Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill all leave early for the NBA.

Wise had a similar thought after taking the Wildcats on a surprising run to the Sweet 16 last season, but changed his mind when Arizona hired Sean Miller to become the program's next head coach in early April.

Because with Miller in charge, there was still hope that the former Xavier head man would be able to keep the Wildcats' streak alive like interim coaches Kevin O'Neill and Russ Pennell had done the past two years.

But the fact was that Lute Olson's lengthy leave of absence and eventual retirement had already done a number on the program.

Arizona lost the commitments of Brandon Jennings, Jeff Withey and Emmanuel Negedu, and the Wildcats were struggling to lock up other top-notch recruits with no permanent head coach in place.

Miller, in the meantime, did the best he could to remedy the situation once he arrived in the desert, securing a talented freshman class late last spring that included point guard Lamont Jones and forwards Derrick Willliams, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom.

Yet with Budinger and Hill gone and only Wise's experience to lean on, there was only so much Miller could do with a team full of fresh faces.

"A whole system, a whole new staff again, and with the five freshmen, (we knew) it would be a mountain to climb for us to make the (NCAA) tournament," Wise explained.

"We almost had to have a perfect season."

The Wildcats' season, however, was far from perfect.

There was the 30-point loss at home to BYU, the 17-point setback at San Diego State and another disappointing, 17-point defeat to Oklahoma.

Those forgettable performances, believe it or not, all came in the first month of the season.

"Everybody knew from the beginning of the season that it would be tough," Wise said about making it back to the NCAA tournament this season.

"We barely made it last year, so it would be even tougher this year."

Yet with the Pac-10 being as weak as it is this season, you'd think that the Wildcats would have had a better chance to extend their streak and eventually catch North Carolina's record 27-year run from 1975-2001.

Miller, though, wasn't about to make any promises in his first year at the helm.

He just knew that the next step to furthering his coaching career was to accept the Arizona job.

Miller, after all, had already won three regular-season championships in the Atlantic 10 and taken Xavier to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight by the young age of 40.

But the opportunity to coach in a BCS conference at a national power was just too good to be true -- no matter what kind of history and tradition he had to assume as head coach.

"Any coach who came to Arizona to make the NCAA tournament for a 26th time, is going to find he's going to be a paranoid coach," he said.

Of course, it's easy to become paranoid when you lose three in a row toward the end of February like the Wildcats did. But with three straight victories to end the regular season, Arizona once again had its fans believing it could save its prestigious streak with three wins in the Pac-10 tourney.

Still, streak or no streak, that wasn't why Miller came to Tucson.

"The reason I came to Arizona is to rebuild our program, and hopefully one day get it back to the level that everybody has watched," he said.

That level clearly wasn't there against a UCLA team that has had its own share of struggles this season, as Arizona allowed the Bruins to shoot 53.2 percent from the field and win the battle on the boards behind Reeves Nelson's game-high 10 rebounds.

"I'm confident that the price we pay through 31 games and the 80-plus practices that we've had, it is a system that will continue to grow and develop," Miller said. "Young players will get bigger, stronger and older.

"And the more depth and size that we have certainly will help."

That will be Miller's next step in repairing a program that was once considered a national power under Olson for nearly 20 years.

And in this one-and-done era of college basketball, that's never an easy task.

No, he won't have Wise at his disposal next season, but between Williams, Hill and sophomore guard Kyle Fogg, it might not be long before Miller is starting his own streak at Arizona.

"That's my only choice," he said.