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'We're on our way,' Wildcats star says
The video montage prior to the start of the game concluded with a number of former Arizona stars repeating the same mantra.
"This is Arizona,” they all said with conviction on their face and pride in their voices.
But that’s not the case.
Just look out on the floor.
I know it’s a different era, but it would have been a challenge for current Wildcats star Derrick Williams to crack the starting lineup in Tucson a decade ago when Lute Olson had a team that consisted of Gilbert Arenas, Luke Walton, Jason Gardner, Loren Woods and Michael Wright.
Don’t blame current coach Sean Miller.
Don’t blame Olson either.
But Arizona isn’t, well, Arizona these days.
“I feel badly that Sean had to come in under the circumstances he did,” Olson said. “It wasn’t how I wanted to leave things, but you can’t control what happens to you health-wise.”
Olson built an unlikely national power in Tucson shortly after he arrived in 1983. There was a national title in 1997, a trio of other Final Four appearances and NBA players coming through at a relentless rate.
But it’s been more than five years since Arizona was a program that was truly relevant nationally.
That’s when Olson’s team won 30 games, finished first in the Pac-10 and wound up blowing a 15-point lead with less than four minutes remaining to Illinois with a Final Four berth on the line.
"It’s unbelievable,” Miller said of Olson’s success. "I marvel at what he did — not over a five- or 10-year period, but over 20 years. I don’t think the program gets the national attention it deserves.”
But then it all began to unravel, and it coincided with Olson’s health issues — a stroke that ultimately forced him to retire.
There was the Kevin O’Neill debacle in 2007-08 after Olson’s health forced him to step away for the season.
Then Russ Pennell took the reins in 2008-09 on an interim basis shortly after Olson made it official his career was over — and the Wildcats, led by a pair of pros in Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, made an improbable Sweet 16 appearance.
But the damage had already been done.
Two full recruiting classes were lost with the uncertainty surrounding Olson.
"I saw myself, health-permitting, coaching until I was 79 or 80,” Olson said.
Instead, Olson’s career officially ended a little more than two years ago at 74.
In April 2009, Miller was brought in from Xavier and took over an unenviable situation. He had to follow in the footsteps of a Hall of Famer — one who built a program from scratch — but Miller had inherited virtually nothing in the cupboard.
It was basically the same situation Indiana coach Tom Crean inherited in Bloomington.
Miller was fortunate to be able to get a trio of former USC commits — including Williams — after the mess involving former Trojans coach Tim Floyd and O.J. Mayo.
He has added a few more guys to piece it all together, has scaled back the schedule and, after Saturday’s win against rival Arizona State, has the Wildcats at 15-3 overall.
Williams dominated with 31 points and 10 rebounds and is clearly one of the best players in the nation.
But he doesn’t have enough help.
This is not a Top 25 team, and it will need some good fortune and the blessing of another subpar Pac-10 conference in order to begin another NCAA tournament streak (the Wildcats’ string of 25 consecutive ended last season).
“We’re not back yet,” Williams admitted. “But we’re on our way.”
That’s because Miller has assembled a three-man recruiting class that is ranked among the nation’s elite.
It starts with elite point guard Josiah Turner, a likely McDonald’s All-American out of Sacramento, Calif., who will come in and be handed the ball from Day One.
There’s ultra-athletic wing Nick Johnson — a consensus Top 50 player from the state who will likely earn a starting spot at some point next year — and New York power forward Sidiki Johnson, who will give Miller a much-needed quality big man up front.
“The talent is getting better,” Miller said. “I love our class. We’re counting on all three of them to come right in and impact us immediately.”
And if Williams, who will have the option to leave for the NBA, decides to return for another year?
“I always think about it,” Williams said. “I think Josiah is the missing piece.”
Williams’ return would put Tucson back on the national map in Year Three of the Miller regime, which would be an impressive feat considering what he inherited.
But for now, Miller is worried about this team — one that snapped an embarrassing three-game losing streak against ASU in Tucson.
It’s mediocre by the standards of an Arizona team, albeit one currently tied with Washington for first place in the Pac-10 with a 4-1 league mark.
But Miller has applauded those in Tucson for their patience, and this program has taken steps to get back to what it once was.
“They were fortunate to get someone of Sean’s caliber,” Olson said. “There’s no question in my mind that they will get back.”
If anyone is qualified to assess the situation, it’s the architect.
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