On the eve of an NCAA round-of-32 matchup in San Diego in 2014, Gonzaga coach Mark Few took the liberty of calling his program and Arizona “kind of the two marquee teams out West, yo-yoing back and forth the last 10 years.”
If anything, on that afternoon, his words seemed to take some chutzpah. The Zags, after all, were in a semi-rut -- as their ruts go -- not having cracked the Sweet 16 in five years. Meanwhile, Arizona, in its fifth season under Sean Miller, had already crashed the Elite Eight and Sweet 16.
Programs like San Diego State and even Washington might have disputed Few’s calculus, which seemed even more questionable when Arizona, top-seeded, throttled the Zags 84-61, in a game that didn’t even feel that close.
Designations such as best in the West, though, tend to have a short shelf-life. Today, with the prospect that the Zags and Arizona could meet in the Maui Invitational in November, there’s little doubt that Gonzaga has surpassed the Wildcats, at least until Arizona sheds the turmoil lately surrounding the program.
There’s no question Arizona has more cachet over the broad sweep of history. It has a national title in 1997, and in the past 30 years, three other Final Fours. Gonzaga broke through to its first Final Four in 2017.
What’s happened to Arizona since that 2014 night against the Zags is almost description-defying. In 2014 and 2015, the Wildcats lost in skin-crawling fashion to very good Wisconsin teams led by Frank Kaminski, each game denying Arizona the Final Four.
In ’17, Arizona was on the precipice of another meeting with Gonzaga to earn the school’s first Final Four under Miller (and its first since 2001). But it coughed up an eight-point lead in the last three minutes and lost to Xavier -- of all programs, the one where Miller earned his coaching chops.
Then came 2017-18, and if you can recall a more bizarre, star-crossed, confounding season in college basketball than Arizona’s, raise your hand. It began with three losses in the Battle 4 Atlantis, with swingman Rawle Alkins on the bench with a broken foot.
Before then, thunder struck with Arizona’s implication in an FBI investigation. Late in a season in which the Wildcats rebounded to blow through the Pac-12, an ESPN report alleged that Miller had been recorded on an FBI wiretap having discussed paying primo prospect DeAndre Ayton $100,000 to come to Arizona.
Ex-Washington coach Lorenzo Romar stepped in for Miller at Oregon, and the world assumed that Miller had coached his last game at Arizona. Well, surprise. He cast a defiant demeanor at a press conference and returned to the bench, while a couple of touted, committed recruits said thanks, but no thanks.
All that doesn’t even address a long-running, on-off story of guard Allonzo Trier’s suspension for PED use.
Ayton stayed on the floor. Miller, after his brief interregnum, returned. And when the Wildcats roared through the Pac-12 tournament field, there was more than a little belief that they were ready for a deep run in the NCAA.
Right up until they got blistered by 13th-seeded Buffalo, 89-68. I said then that of all the upsets by low seeds in the history of the tournament, it was the most resounding and decisive. (That held up at least one night, until Maryland-Baltimore County upended No. 1 seed Virginia.)
Meanwhile, the engine purrs smoothly at Gonzaga, which has been to four straight Sweet 16s, and where controversy is a player deciding whether to turn pro or stay.
“The mix just wasn’t right,” said longtime Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen of the Wildcats. “They had all these talented bodies. The responsibilities overlapped. They weren’t hard workers, they weren’t tough. When Buffalo just crushed ‘em, it was embarrassing. Ayton would disappear at times. It just looked like he (Miller) should have got so much more out of them.”
I sought out Hansen, who knows as much about Arizona hoops -- and the lay of the land in the Pac-12 -- as anybody, both to take the temperature of the Wildcats and to get a read on personnel in advance of what could be a Maui matchup with Gonzaga. The Zags open with Illinois, and Arizona meets Iowa State in openers.
The Wildcats will be virtually starting anew, with their top five scorers having departed. The turnover is massive, but it could be that success will depend on the arc of heretofore bit players like Brandon Randolph (6-6) and Emmanuel Akot (6-7). They combined to average 5.5 points in 2017-18.
“Randolph was really highly rated, but he played like he was scared last year,” said Hansen. “The same with Akot. He looked great in person but played like a deer stuck in traffic. They’ve got to have him and Randolph (develop) or they’re not going to be any good.”
Chances are, if you’ve heard of any of the Wildcats, it’s because one of them is Brandon Williams, the guard Gonzaga tried desperately to land in the spring before he re-upped on a commitment to Arizona.
Hansen figures a reasonable guess at a starting lineup would be Williams; grad transfer guard Justin Coleman, who averaged 13.5 points at Samford after spending two years at Alabama; 6-9, 225-pound Pitt transfer Ryan Luther, who averaged 12.7 and 10.1 in a season truncated by a foot injury; Chase Jeter, the 6-10 transfer from Duke -- another player the Zags recruited on the bounce -- and probably Akot.
Either of necessity or design, there’s talk of Miller implementing a system of slashing wings and guard-heavy basketball, as opposed to the recent reliance on big men. If that takes place, it would contrast with Gonzaga’s expected strength up front.
The great unknown, at Arizona and elsewhere, is the status of the much-discussed investigation of college hoops by the FBI. Has there been a pullback of the probe, after widespread criticism that there was overreach, or is the FBI working methodically and quietly, with more revelations to come?
Yahoo Sports.com, which has been out front with the FBI-probe story, suggested strongly Monday that it’s more the latter than the former, writing, “Many coaches and administrators have equated the lack of headline news with a potential lack of action. That notion has been greeted with a chuckle for those experienced with federal cases.”
Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke, a former lieutenant to ex-Oregon and Washington State AD Bill Moos, “talked about it last week for the first time,” Hansen says. “He didn’t brush it off, but he sounded like, ‘No big deal.’ If he’s worried, he gave a different impression.”
Who knows? Maybe that’s the residue of Arizona’s strangest season, where you’re best to take it one day at a time.