TUCSON, Ariz. — It was a little more than a year ago when the Arizona Wildcats faced Seattle Pacific in the team’s exhibition opener.
And – gasp! – lost.
Arizona doesn’t lose exhibition games. It doesn’t lose home games. At least it’s not supposed to.
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Such is life for one of college basketball’s elite programs. You can count on expectations to be high when you’re selling out intrasquad games.
It’s about winning and sending the fans home happy.
This season, it all starts with Wednesday’s exhibition game with Humboldt State at McKale Center.
Still, the games must be played and the expectations tempered. It all brings to brings to mind Kansas coach Bill Self’s words at last season’s Final Four when his team faced North Carolina in the semifinals.
“(At) Kansas, North Carolina, winning is a relief, losing is a disaster,” Self said. “Sometimes you’ve got to find joy in winning. A lot of times we have kind of relished in the opportunity to be that team that’s chasing as opposed to the team that’s (being) chased all the time. You’ve got to be just as hungry both ways, but I like the thought of our guys thinking that we’re the hunter.”
Arizona has long been the hunted. It will be again be this season.
Former Arizona coach Lute Olson said always having the burden of high expectations “was not always that simple and not always that easy.”
Sean Miller agreed, adding that getting to this point – being ranked in the top 20 to start the season and its highest ranking since 2006-07 – wasn’t easy. Victories might be expected, but they don’t come easily.
His program isn’t the one from the heyday of the Olson era. Instead, it’s been a program in need of a rebuilding and relaunch.
“To me, the starting point that we had here when we first got to Arizona was a whole different ball game,’’ Miller said when told of Self’s thoughts. “Knowing comprehensively how far we’ve come, whether it’s on the court or off the court, it’s that building process that is very difficult. I would say more difficult than winning at a place that expects to win – having tough losses, losing at home, fighting in the offseason in recruiting – is building a more talented, deeper and more experienced team.”
Four years from getting the head coaching job, he’s done that. Whether the program has arrived will be determined later, because March is when teams are measured. But clearly Miller has done wonders with recruiting (having two of the top recruiting classes over the last two years), not to mention guiding the Wildcats to the Elite Eight two years ago, one shot away from the Final Four.
Consistency, however, is essential to continued success.
“As we enter our fourth year, I look at it not necessarily comparing our four years to the history of Arizona basketball, as much as I compare Year 1 to Year 2, and 2 to 3, and then hopefully we’re built to last,’’ Miller said. “If we win and we’re able to be successful four or five years from now, maybe we’re able to get into that other category, but I don’t look at us as having earned that other category yet as much as we’re still getting better and we have a team and a program now that is built for the long haul. If we have that, we can be very proud of that because of where we started.”
Olson will be watching. He said he expects the team “to be really good.”
He also warned fans that they “need to recognize that this is a young team” with the possibility of two freshmen (Grant Jarret and Kaleb Tarczewski or Brandon Ashley) and a transfer (Mark Lyons) in the starting lineup.
“But they have some good experience with Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom,” Olson said. “Parrom is going to be important because he’s a senior and tough-minded, and that’s important to have on a team.”