Arizona Week: Evaluating the Recent Past

Posted by AMurawa on June 25th, 2012

For better or worse, there are three overriding eras in the history of the Arizona basketball program, all revolving around Hall of Fame head coach Lute Olson. There is, of course, the Lute Olson era, from 1983 to 2007, during which the Wildcats made 23 straight NCAA Tournaments (over the course of 24 seasons), advanced to four Final Fours and won their lone NCAA Championship in 1997. The other two eras are dictated by their relationship to the Silver Fox’s reign in the desert. The pre-Olson era had its moments, mostly under Fred Enke (who coached the program from 1925 to 1961) when the Wildcats owned the Border Conference in the 1940s and advanced to three NITs and one NCAA Tournament, but by and large, the Arizona program was a non-entity prior to Olson’s arrival from Iowa. However, the end of the Olson era left the Wildcat program in something of a mess, as health and personal issues caused the transfer of power to be choppy at best, with Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell each limited to single ill-prepared seasons in the desert. Throw in the fact that the results from the 2007-08 season had to be vacated because of violations committed by Olson, and for a stretch, there was some doubt as to whether the program could live up to the high standards set by their iconic head coach.

Lute Olson, Arizona

Lute Olson’s Legacy Casts A Heavy Shadow Over the Arizona Basketball Program (Danny Moloshok, AP Photo)

But, in the spring of 2009, highly regarded head coach Sean Miller agreed to leave Xavier and become the new top man in the desert, immediately reestablishing a sense of stability around the program. Despite the fact that his Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament in his first season after 25-straight appearances, the program was back in the limelight in his second year, as the Wildcats won the Pac-10 and advanced to the Elite Eight in 2010-11, before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut as a potential game-winning three rimmed out at the buzzer. While last year’s team again missed the NCAA Tournament, Miller assuaged the fears of Wildcat fans by inking an elite recruiting class, ranked third in the nation by ESPNU, featuring three top 20 recruits. For the most part, there appears to be a confidence around the program that, despite a few bumps along the road in transition from Olson to Miller, the road ahead looks smooth.

Still, there are some questions that deserve to be asked about the Miller era. First, in his initial days as the Wildcat head coach, he lucked into a couple significant recruits, as Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill and Momo Jones each were released from their commitments to USC when Tim Floyd and the Trojan program ran afoul of the NCAA. Without that turn of events, the Wildcats likely don’t make the NCAA Tournament (let alone the Elite Eight) in 2010-11, and Miller would currently be looking at three straight seasons without an invitation to the Big Dance. What’s more, as Miller will readily admit, without Williams and his evolution in Tucson, Miller likely wouldn’t have landed this season’s big recruiting class — in which case, the natives would be restless and Miller would be very much on the hot seat. Then there’s last year’s failure, with two big recruits from the 2011 class getting run out of town prior to the end of their first season. While Wildcat fans have been quite patient with Miller, understanding that the program was at a low point when he took over, this remains a program that is used to de rigueur NCAA Tournament bids.

Nevertheless, he did wind up with Williams and company; he did help remake Williams from an afterthought to an NBA lottery pick; he did conduct a magical Elite Eight run; and, he did ink a difference-making 2012 recruiting class. While Miller will still need to prove that he is capable of keeping the Wildcats nationally relevant on a yearly basis as his predecessor did, the general feeling around the program is that Miller is clearly the right man for the job and on the verge of having the Wildcats back to being a consistent force in the Pac-12 conference for the foreseeable future.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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