PHOENIX — Six years ago today Arizona suffered its worst collapse in program history in a game widely known as one of the best of the last decade, blowing a 15-point lead with four minutes remaining.
It’s amazing how much change the program has encountered in these past six crazy years before ending up right back where they belonged for the bulk of the Lute Olson era.
Players and fans have tried to tout “We never left,” but that’s simply not true. It was a definite stumble with Arizona falling from the ranks of the elite for five seasons of mediocrity that featured a host of 8-9 seeds, and the one year the Wildcats did advance to the Sweet 16 during this stretch came as an underdog 12 seed with an easy bracket.
In this time we saw a legend, Lute Olson, momentarily lose his mind, take a leave of absence, return and retire for good. We saw an interim coach dictator (Kevin O’Neill) who was promised a successorship in 12 days to maintain the appearance of status quo before a messy divorce and we saw the unheralded Russ Pennell become the most unlikely Sweet 16 coach in some time, going from ASU radio to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
The chaos took its toll on recruiting, but when Sean Miller arrived last season he quickly restocked the empire, but not soon enough as a very young Arizona team last year broke the school’s run of 25 straight NCAA Tournaments.
But now they’re back, and six years to the day of the Illinois loss that sent them hurtling toward mediocrity Arizona basketball is elite once again.
Gentry likes Arizona’s chances
Alvin Gentry has seen an underdog team catch fire at the right time and ride the coattails of a superstar to a national championship. That’s exactly what the Kansas Jayhawks he served as an assistant coach for did behind stud forward Danny Manning in 1988.
“U of A reminds me a little of the way we were when we won,” said Gentry, with Derrick Williams playing the Manning role on Arizona. “You get into the tournament and you get on a roll, all you’ve got to do is be on a roll for two weeks, two and a half weeks, and the way they’re playing right now I’m not sure if anyone’s going to beat them.
“And you’ve got to be a little lucky. The Texas game they probably should have lost. We should have lost to Xavier the first time, first game out. You have to have a little luck and then you’ve got to be playing well, and they’re doing both right now.”
Not many people thought the Wildcats would be in this position when the tournament started, but Gentry was sure to give credit where credit is due to a former Phoenix Suns star.
“Charles called it a week ago,” Gentry said of studio analyst Charles Barkley. “He said the very first day, ‘Arizona’s going to end up playing Duke. They’ll kick Duke.’ He said that before the tournament even started.
“He also said that Dewey was going to beat Truman, too.”
Barkley did indeed pick Arizona to reach his Final Four.
Channing’s elite experience
I ran into Matt Brase, a senior along with Channing Frye on that 2005 team that lost to Illinois, at Friday’s Suns game as he does some scouting work for the Spurs.
Brase was saying if Illinois had not done one thing perfectly and if Arizona had just done one thing adequately, that game wouldn’t be known as one of the greatest collapses in tournament history.
I chatted with Frye about the game last year on its five-year anniversary, and he told me that contest put him in the league. Frye saved perhaps his best collegiate performance for last, torching the Illini for 24 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks on his way to being the No. 8 overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. He even drilled a clutch three-pointer, perhaps foreshadowing what was to come in his pro career after only being a mid-range shooter for the most part at Arizona.
Frye does not feel regret over that devastating loss because he knows there’s nothing more he could have done to preserve a victory in that program-crushing defeat.
If Arizona leads by 15 with four minutes left today, however, I doubt any UA fan will feel too secure with that lead.
Looking good in red
Grant Hill lived up to his end of the bet by wearing an Arizona Basketball shirt and red Arizona shorts on Friday, as Frye posted on his Facebook account.
“Funny, as a matter of fact, it really was,” Gentry said of Hill in UA gear. “I think Channing took a lot of pride in that.”
Frye looks forward to making Vince Carter his next victim if the Wildcats and Tar Heels both reach the Final Four.