The pain of Arizona’s Elite Eight loss will not soon subside. Not when the Wildcats were so close to ending their Final Four drought, yet came up just short in the most heartbreaking fashion. You can throw around all the cloy platitudes you want but nothing will diminish the emptiness that is buried in the hearts of Arizona fans right now.
However, one defeat should not overshadow a season that will go down as one of the best and most memorable in school history.
Arizona first proved its place among the nation’s elite teams when it when into the Viejas Arena and led San Diego State wire to wire. Little did anyone know at the time that Arizona would return to Viejas to play its first two NCAA Tournament games and that the Wildcats and Aztecs would rematch in the Sweet 16.
In the first meeting, much like the second, San Diego State gave Arizona a late scare but Aaron Gordon proved to be too much and Nick Johnson sealed the win with four clutch free throws.
Two weeks later, Arizona showed that the impressive road win was no fluke as the Wildcats went to Madison Square Garden and knocked off the Duke Blue Devils in a match-up that showcased Gordon and Jabari Parker.
Yet if the win proved one thing to Wildcats fans, it was that Arizona didn’t need to heavily rely on a single talent the way Duke often had to all season. Arizona received double digits in scoring from all five of its starters and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York both provided key boosts from the bench.
The victory boosted Arizona up to No. 2 in the rankings and after the Wildcats knocked off UNLV in a closer than expected win, Arizona became the No. 1 team in the country the following Monday.
The Wildcats would stay there for eight weeks, defeating every opponent in their sight. Some games were more exciting than others (plenty of Arizona fans wanted to relive the Michigan victory but few wanted to rewind to the grueling 60-25 win over Washington State) but each ended with the same result.
That is until the fateful night in Berkeley when Arizona’s perfect season came to an end but more importantly, Brandon Ashley was lost for the year.
At the time, many pundits wrote off the Wildcats as a Final Four threat and understandably so. Ashley was arguably the most versatile player on the roster and Arizona wouldn’t be able to replace his athleticism.
Things didn’t get immediately better but Sean Miller crafted a new identity, one the team fully bought into. It included Elliott Pitts seeing significant action and Hollis-Jefferson becoming the engine off the bench.
Just three weeks after the injury, Arizona played a stretch of three games where it annihilated Colorado, Cal, and Stanford. In the last win against the Cardinal, the Wildcats clinched the Pac-12 title on Senior Day.
After being victims of two court storms, the players got a bit of vengeance when they stormed the Zona Zoo in a moment of pure bliss.
The Wildcats split the final road trip of the season and then entered Las Vegas with the support of a seemingly endless stream of fans plated in cardinal red and navy blue.
Arizona had no trouble getting the Pac-12 Tournament Final. Then, for the second year in a row, the Wildcats’ trip to Sin City ended with a bitter loss at the hands of their rivals from Westwood.
A No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday relieved any pain from the previous night’s loss and it looked like Arizona had a favorable path to Dallas.
But in March, very few things go as planned or expected. Arizona looks forward to next year, a team that should retain most of its core while adding a talented cast of newcomers.