Over the years, there’s been a lot of winning basketball in Tucson.
McKale Center’s lore is best known for the raucous crowds of late eighties that watched Arizona win 71 straight games. But the legend of McKale dates back to it’s opening, when Arizona won 67 of the first 70 games in the building. And shockingly enough, that well known 71 game win streak wasn’t even Arizona’s longest. From 1945-1951, Arizona won 81 straight games in Bear Down gym, the fifth longest streak ever, albeit in a different era of basketball.
It’s easy to spot Arizona’s most dominant teams by looking at their home records. From the 87-88 season until 2001, Arizona went a mind boggling 202-13 (.939) in McKale. Arizona’s turbulent coaching change is also easily identifiable in the record books: in the four seasons from 2006-10, Arizona was just 47-19 (.712) at home. And while Arizona’s recent run to the Elite 8 is remembered for being unexpected, careful observers might have seen it coming after the Wildcats went 17-0 at home that season.
But more than numbers, there is an atmosphere in McKale that’s tough to understand until you feel it. During Arizona’s rise to national prominence, there was a workmanlike approach to basketball in Tucson. Tickets were virtually impossible to find. If an opposing team was going to come to Tucson and win, they would have to do so in spite of the best efforts of the 14,000 rabid fans in the building.
There was simply a belief that Arizona would not lose at home. Fans waited in anticipation for top teams to come to Tucson, and watched them leave with a loss almost every time. There was a palpable expectation that no team would come in and win; the Wildcats were unbeatable at home.
While Arizona climbed to the top of the basketball world, important home games became a regular occurrence. But some games elevate to an almost mythical status: the Fab 4 coming to town, double overtime against Duke, Shaquille O’Neal in McKale, Jason Terry’s game winner over Stanford, the Whiteout victory, the comeback against Houston, a 20 point turnaround against UCLA, and so on.
Add the Florida game.
Thanks to what felt like a charmed finish, the belief that opponents just can’t win is setting back in around town. In recent years, McKale’s crowd has been notorious for leaving early. You can virtually set your watch to fans that leave at the final media timeout. But a strange thing happened against Florida: the crowd stayed.
And then they continued to stay. In a “I can’t believe what I just saw” stupor, fans just stood there. Cheering, high-fiving, hugging, and bursting with emotion. The crowd had been so loud in the final minute that the noise seemed to echo long after the game was over.
Make no mistake about it, in a quiet gym Kenny Boynton makes that free throw. If the Florida players could hear each other, they might have been able to break the press. But the ground seemed to shake beneath the roars of the crowd, and the ball seemed to bounce Arizona’s way when it mattered.
Sean Miller has not shied away from the importance of the crowd. Miller has called McKale Center one of the toughest places to play in the country, citing the crowd support as Arizona’s biggest advantage. And while reflecting on the Florida victory, Miller suggested that home court might have contributed 8-10 points towards the Cat’s effort that night.
Every fan witnessed it. Noise can alter the outcome of a game, and once you really believe that, you can’t stop yourself from yelling as loud as possible.
When the Wildcats were losing at home, the usual explanations for tame crowds were that the basketball wasn’t as exciting, that people needed to see quality play in order to be loud, that the crowd was aging. But perhaps more simply, it might have been that everyone in attendance accepted that losing at home happens.
Once the final buzzer sounded against Florida, an air of invincibility began to return. One that has not been felt for years. If Florida, a deep and experienced team, could come into McKale and play great for 39 minutes, seemingly answering every Arizona punch, and still not come away with a win, how could anyone?
Of course that is hyperbole, but the sentiment is accurate. Lute Olson was fond of saying the key to winning the conference was “winning your home games and splitting on the road.” And that’s what Olson did, going undefeated in McKale 7 times, and winning the conference all but one of those years.
This Arizona team has plenty of home games left to play against quality opponents. And winning them all will be a tougher challenge than beating Florida. One that will require more fortunate breaks, tougher clutch shots, and intense noise. But if Arizona can defend it’s home court, odds are that they will win the conference yet again. And if you ask Arizona fans, there’s not a team in the league that should be able to win in McKale.
Whether or not that’s true is besides the point. Something remarkable happens when the crowd in McKale believes that Arizona will win. We’ve seen it time and time again, games at home where the Cats refuse to lose. String a few of those together and you have a good season. Put a few seasons together and you have a streak. And no other school, not even UCLA, has two 70+ win streaks.
Aside from providing energy for their own team, fans instill doubt in the visitors from the opening tip. Countless opponents can recall stepping foot in McKale and thinking, “How are we ever going to win this?” Simply put, there used to be magic in McKale.
And it’s back.