PGU Staff Writer AW Butler
One year removed from uncertainty and the near collapse of Arizona basketball, the program had a less tumultuous, but just as important 2010.
Here are the five biggest stories of the year:
1. Greg Byrne named Athletic Director
One of Lute Olson’s greatest accomplishments was building the Arizona brand. Olson turned nothing into something, consistently leading a top five revenue generating basketball program. In an evolving world of marketing, be it the internet or social media, being ahead of the game is drastically important. Enter Greg Byrne. The wunderkind is active on Twitter and in the community. He has reshaped communication between the athletic department and the average fan. Every coach speaks of the energy and excitement Byrne brings, as well as their shared vision of the future. Byrne’s job is about face time and relationships, and as intercollegiate athletics continues to grow as a billion dollar business, Byrne realizes he needs to continue the brand Olson started. The success of Arizona basketball has ties to every athlete at the University: football, softball, baseball, etc. Anything that makes it’s way to the national spotlight, whether positive or negative, has a significant impact. Byrne is energetic, dynamic, and eager to be successful. And the ASU grad – yes, there are some of those – is making things happen. In the next chapter of Arizona athletics, Byrne might be just as influential as Sean Miller or Mike Stoops.
2. Josiah Turner commits to Arizona
Not that long ago Arizona fans would not have flinched at the announcement of a top 20 point guard committing to play for the Wildcats. But things have changed in the past few years and the recruiting cupboard had seemingly run bare. It was exciting when Sean Miller first arrived and was able to piece together a remarkable recruiting class, one that would rival any of his classes at Xavier. However, this isn’t Cincinnati. Miller’s second class was solid, but it lacked any real star power on the national stage. Miller ended his 2011 class with a commitment that symbolized much more than a star point guard. It is well documented that Turner is smart, quick, and athletic. His handles are advanced and he can blow by defenders. Once in the lane he can finish, but also create for others. Beyond X’s and O’s, Turner’s commitment demonstrates exactly why Sean Miller came to Tucson: to win national championships. The commitment of an elite talent that was pursued by the nation’s best programs is a great sign that Arizona Basketball is (still) a force to be reckoned with. Some called Turner the most significant recruit since Mike Bibby. While that seems a bit over the top, the sentiment that Turner has inspired is clear.
3. The Streak Ends
Not all stories have happy endings. Twenty-five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is quite an accomplishment. The streak started in March, 1984 and didn’t end until March of this year. The names on the back of the jerseys changed, but never the front. It was a streak very few have matched and will forever be appreciated. But 2010 will be remembered as the year the streak ended. In many ways, the end of the streak allowed Tucson to close the Lute Olson era, and look forward to the Sean Miller era. If the Wildcats are able to return to the tournament this season, the end of the streak will be forgiven as the program looks to build a new one.
4. Nick Johnson commits to Arizona
Sean Elliot, Mike Bibby, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Jerryd Bayless. For years, it was a foregone conclusion that the best talent in Arizona went to Tucson. There was only one elite basketball team in Arizona. Sean Miller knows it, you and I know it, and Sendek is figuring it out. Nick Johnson was the first high profile recruit that seemed to be seriously considering choosing ASU over Arizona. Nick Johnson’s commitment to the U of A was necessary for the program to maintain it’s strangle hold on in state talent, which is essential to long term success. It also continued to build the excitement that has been growing this year. Johnson was the staff’s main target and Sean Miller got his man. The incredibly athletic combo guard, who has already cracked Sportscenter’s top 10, will be a superb addition to a team lacking scoring depth. Add in Johnson’s Oakland Soldiers connections and Miller may be building a pipeline.
5. The Rivalry Returns
Arizona marched up to Tempe on January 23, 2010 with a tight 9-9 record and without any momentum. They were about to play an Arizona State team riding a five game win streak against the ‘Cats, an unheard of feat during the Olson years. It was Sean Miller’s first trip to Phoenix as Arizona’s coach and he was facing his mentor, Herb Sendek. Down early at an uncharacteristically loud Wells Fargo Arena, things did not look good for the young Wildcats. Midway through the first half the Sun Devils built a 20-10 lead. But the young Cats didn’t fold, and from that point the Wildcats would outscore ASU 67-38, en route to their biggest margin of victory for the season. After the game Miller was asked why, despite a 19 point lead, he kept his starters in until the final horn. The Arizona coach – a reporter’s dream and wizard behind a microphone – calmly answered, “We were trying to win the game.” Despite the fact that ASU had the better season and Arizona was still rebuilding, the feeling in Tempe was that they might be staring at another two decades of dominance.