TUCSON, Ariz. – When Arizona won a conference title and came within seconds of reaching the Final Four two years ago, the consensus was that the storied program was back after a couple of down years.
Coach Sean Miller had an inkling the Wildcats weren't quite there. He wanted to believe otherwise, but there were just too many holes in the roster, too many question marks to truly think Arizona had fully recovered from the dark days that followed coach Lute Olson's retirement.
"Anytime you win 30 games and you're a shot from the Final Four, everybody can certainly feel like we've arrived," Miller said Wednesday from the McKale Center. "That was probably preliminary and I kind of knew that deep down."
Arizona might now actually be back on track — not just this season, but for many to come.
Backing up a stellar recruiting class with one that may be even better, Miller appears to have a foundation in place to resurrect a program that has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons.
Miller's latest recruiting class includes four of the top prospects in the country — three of them big men — and was rated by some services as the nation's best. He also managed to land guard Mark Lyons, a graduate of Xavier who has a year of eligibility left after helping the Musketeers reach the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
Two of the four recruits from Miller's previous among-the-best-in-the-country class are gone, but explosive guard Nick Johnson and springy-legged forward Angelo Chol return.
Guiding all these youngsters is a nice core of veterans: All-Pac-10 forward Solomon Hill, multi-dimensional forward Kevin Parrom and point guard Jordin Mayes.
Oh, and next year the Wildcats will add T.J. McConnell, a dynamic, do-everything guard who's sitting out this season after transferring from Duquesne.
"We have a great foundation," Hill said. "A great mix of younger talent and older guys, veterans, who really want to work hard."
It's been a long fight to get to this point.
A gritty point guard at Pittsburgh, Miller inherited a mess in the desert after leaving Xavier. The fourth coach in as many years at Arizona, he took over a program that had fallen into disarray on the court and in recruiting after Olson took a leave of absence for the 2007-08 season and retired abruptly before the next one.
Miller cobbled the Wildcats together the best he could the first year, leading to a 16-win season that he said was much closer to 10 wins than 20.
Arizona caught a bit of a break the next season, when Derrick Williams transformed from an afterthought in his recruiting class into one of the best players in the country. Behind Williams, the Pac-10 player of the year, Arizona won 30 games, the conference title and came within seconds of knocking off Duke to reach the Final Four.
Despite a stellar recruiting class, Arizona didn't come close to matching that success last season.
The Wildcats took a big blow when Williams opted to leave after his sophomore season and became the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft by Minnesota. Parrom, expected to be a big contributor, had a miserable offseason and wasn't the same player from the season before despite gallantly returning after being shot in the leg and losing his mother and grandmother.
Mayes had offseason foot surgery and re-injured it during the season. Forward Sidiki Johnson, one of the fab four freshmen, never panned out and left the team in December. Point guard Josiah Turner, another freshman, was suspended twice during the season and left the team after it was over.
The Wildcats fought through all the hardships to win 23 games, but were relegated to the NIT after losing to struggling rival Arizona State in the regular-season finale. Even the NIT was a disappointment; Arizona lost at home to Bucknell in the opener.
"We've gone through a lot in three years and a lot of amazing things have happened when you consider we were within a shot of a Final Four, have won a conference championship and have pulled up short, fought hard and learned lessons along the way," Miller said.
Stability could come this season.
This year's recruiting class includes 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-10 forward Grant Jerrett and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley, three of the top incoming big men in the country.
The addition of those three turns what was a weakness last season into a strength this year, their versatility — along with Chol's — giving Miller a chance to interchange players without a drop-off in talent or worrying about anyone wearing out. They also allow Hill to move back to his nature position of small forward, a change that spurred him to transform his body during the summer and enter the season in the best shape of his life.
The Wildcats are equally impressive at guard, the veteran leadership of Lyons and Parrom mixing well with the athleticism of Johnson and Mayes.
And this is a team built to last. Hill, Parrom and Lyons are all seniors, but most of the rest of the roster is underclassmen who should have the benefit of playing with the scrappy McConnell next season if they stick around.
"As you build and do things comprehensively and try to do things the right way, it takes time," Miller said. "I think as we enter our fourth year here, it's exciting to know everybody in our program we recruited and I think the chances of being successful because of that, and some other things, are now in place."
Not just now, but for the future, too.