Arizona set with a firm foundation
Arizona's NCAA tournament run ended in heartbreak abruptly ending on a long 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the regional semifinals.
Once the disappointment of that wore off, the Wildcats were able to reflect, realize it was a pretty sweet season.
''I leave this season with no regrets,'' Arizona coach Sean Miller said after the Wildcats lost 73-70 to Ohio State on Saturday.
It would be hard to have many.
Arizona opened the season with 14 straight wins, overcame a late-season lull to reach the NCAA tournament and won their first two games to reach the West Region semifinals.
The Wildcats couldn't get past Ohio State, thanks to LaQuinton Ross' long 3-pointer with 2 seconds left, but they won 27 games and reached the round of 16 for the second time in three seasons.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
''This process started a long, long time ago, and for us to win 27 games and lose in the Sweet Sixteen to Ohio State, we leave here with our head held high,'' Miller said at the podium with players Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson and Mark Lyons. ''Me as the coach, I leave here with my head held high because of these guys right here. They did everything we wanted them to do.''
Arizona entered the season with big expectations.
Despite just missing the NCAA tournament the previous season, the Wildcats were expected to make a deep run into March behind a talented mix of veteran players and athletic youngsters.
Hill, fellow senior Kevin Parrom point guard Jordin Mayes played on the team that came within a few seconds of reaching the Final Four two seasons ago, and guard Nick Johnson was coming off a solid freshman season.
Arizona also added a veteran presence with Mark Lyons, a graduate transfer from Xavier, and Miller brought in another exceptional recruiting class that included three of the best incoming big men in the country.
The Wildcats were sharp early, rallying to beat Florida in a battle of Top-10 teams, then won the Diamondhead Classic in Hawaii by beating San Diego State after Johnson swooped in to block a last-second shot at the rim.
Arizona had an inconsistent run through the Pac-12, particularly on defense, and lost some games it probably should have won.
The Wildcats were knocked off in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament by UCLA, but opened the NCAA tournament with some impressive wins, rolling over upset-minded Belmont and Harvard.
Arizona put itself in good position to reach the Elite Eight, tying the game against Ohio State on Lyons' three-point play with 21 seconds left, but failed to rotate out in time to get a hand up on Ross' winning 3 to see its season come to an abrupt end.
''It was a close-knit group,'' Hill said. ''Just for it to end like this, it's a little weird. But I think we competed well. I think we did better than some people thought we were supposed to. We had some lapses in the year, but we picked it up when we were supposed to.''
Arizona certainly should be in good shape next year, not to mention years to come.
Miller has been one of the best recruiters in college basketball and is already lining up one of the nation's classes for next season.
Lyons and Hill are leaving and Parrom will have to wait to see if he gets a medical waiver to play a fifth season.
But Arizona will get Johnson is back, along with the talented trio of Brandon Ashley, Grant Jarrett and Kaleb Tarczewski, who should be even better as sophomores next season.
The Wildcats also will have a true point guard next season: T.J. McConnell.
Though Lyons and Johnson can both handle the ball, they're more suited to playing shooting guard.
McConnell is a true point guard, a pass-first player who makes everyone around him better. McConnell had to sit out this season after transferring from Duquesne, but was able to practice with the team, so he'll know the system and the players in it when he hits the court next season.
''He really creates for everyone else on the team,'' Tarczewski said after the Ohio State loss. ''He's a pass-first point guard, and that's going to help next year with all the talent we have.''