We been all around the Arizona basketball program this week, but we’ve got one last post to go, the one in which we step way back and look at the big picture of the program, not just looking at what the next season holds, but the overall trajectory of the program. Given the stunning success the program enjoyed under legendary head coach Lute Olson, it is no secret that the last few years have been sub-par. Two NCAA Tournaments missed in the last three years is especially galling to a program that ran off 25 straight appearances, but that’s in the past now. What should – and what will – the next decade or more of Arizona basketball look like?
Prior to Lute Olson, Wildcat basketball was an afterthought on the national scene. But after 11 Pac-10 titles in 25 years, with 11 Sweet 16s, four Final Fours and a national title mixed in there, Arizona is without a doubt an elite program, a solid #2 program in their conference (for evidence of how strong a program Arizona is, watch some of their fans take offense at being referred to as the #2 program in the conference). Olson established Tucson as a legitimate landing spot for elite recruits from around the country. Further, upgrades to the basketball facilities which began under Olson have continued under new head coach Sean Miller. Between the McKale Center and the Richard Jefferson Gym, the Wildcats enjoy excellent facilities, even if the 41-year old McKale is no longer exactly state-of-the-art, a fact more than made up for by the consistent fan support that building houses.
As for Olson’s replacement, despite the two missed NCAA tourneys in Miller’s first three seasons, the new head man has a history of success, taking Xavier to four tournament appearances in his five seasons there, including two Sweet 16s. And the Elite Eight run in his one NCAA appearance at UA has not only earned him time, but it has earned him the confidence of his fanbase and the trust of recruits, who saw Derrick Williams rise from an afterthought as a recruit to the second overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. In short, Miller has credibility not only for those close to the UA program, but for the recruits who he’ll need to entice to the desert to get the ‘Cats back to their perch atop the Pac-12.
And really, those are the rightful expectations for the Arizona program: consistently competing for and winning conference titles, regularly advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament and occasionally landing in the Final Four. A national title every decade or two wouldn’t hurt either. Lute Olson set a high bar for the program, and while his run of success is the exception, rather than the rule, over the long arc of the program, it is, for better or worse, the standard for the modern-era of Arizona basketball. Basketball fans around the nation expect the Arizona program to be an unfailing national force, playing ridiculously tough regular season schedules, making NCAA Tournaments annually, pipelining players to the NBA. It is a realistic goal for the program because it has been done before. And barring a major change in culture, that is the expectation for all future head coaches at UA. There will likely be coaches in the future who are not up to that challenge, just as UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina, for instance, have made missteps in hiring for the head seat. And the leash that those coaches get will not always be long. But, forever and anon, the expectations in Tucson will be vast. As they should be.