The Wildcats are appropriately seeded as a #2. You can’t lose to the 100th, 117th, and 70th KenPom rated teams (104, 131, and 102 by RPI) while the rest of the elites are dropping games like “Duke,” “Georgetown,” or “no-losses-whatsoever.” It’s just how it goes. Besides, the West is what was most important to this group. But let’s also not ignor the fact that since getting that crap out of their system, the Wildcats have destroyed teams. Obliterated. They enter this tournament hotter than any summer-in-Tucson analogy I could come up with. Gander this chart summarizing each of the top eight seeds in their last eleven games:
LaQuinton Ross got open and that point guard lauded for his playmaking ability found the pistol hot wing. Onions ensued in a play Grant Jerrett said he’d wear the blame for. All screens are switched, that one was not. It became central to the post game dialogue, a dissection of the biggest shot yet made in this tournament. In that unfortunate moment of miscommunication, Grant Jerrett remained on ball. But to point a finger at Grant is to dismiss the mal-execution of a second half’s transition defense. It’s to dismiss the unfortunate lack of offensive execution in the game’s third quarter. It’s to ignore the great fortune of the Ross jumper.
But there’s only one shining moment.
And for nine straight points, Solomon Hill would not retire. Hell for four years he built for games like this and when he found his team facing their biggest deficit of the game, he carried them. With just a quarter of game in a career to be revered as All-Time remaining, “my man” – as Sean Miller once put it – was not ready to leave. The senior from Los Angeles, the senior of the Miller-era, the senior who played every role the program needed, our senior, scored nine straight points. He might go, but not quietly.
Neither would Mark Lyons. This young man, he of every possible storyline, was not about to hang up the Arizona #2 jersey he adorned for one triumphant season of basketball. Albeit brief, the young man from Schenectady, NY was about as Wildcat as they get. Disregard the position you thought he would, could or should play. He played like hell, he played like March, he scored 73-points. And as it appeared his hand was going to be forced to hang that top up, there he was. As we’d seen across 34 previous games – from the unforgettable in Patric Young’s face to the forgettable inside Pauley – our rent-a-point and his own Onions were streaking to the basket, drawing Ross’ contact, and allowing our hearts to soar with hope and our minds to wander to far away places like Atlanta.
But there’s only one shining moment.
And for two coaches with the history they share and the respect they hold and the friendship they maintain, what did all that mean? With the three dropped and the heave intercepted and the buzzer buzzed, Thad Matta and Sean Miller embraced and smiled, understanding that what had just transpired – regardless of which side of the scoreboard you sat on – was special. That their season’s work could lead to a tie ball game with but a handful of ticks remaining in a situation begging to build on the lore of our favorite month. Yeah, they smiled. Helluva game.
Thad marches on with his scarlet army. A very good team with some marvelously talented players. Aaron Craft is all the headache they said he’d be and Deshaun Thomas is all the beast anyone can handle. And their role players? Well if you’re OK calling a 6’8″ slashing and shooting sixth man named LaQuinton Ross a “role player” then I’m satisfied in telling you that Ohio State’s role players are fantastic.
Sean, on the other hand, will console his Wildcats and himself. He may have smiled court side with his old pal but inside he hurts – I certainly do. Because that’s the last we’ll see of that senior who did score nine straight; and that guard who drew the contact; and everything that Kevin Parrom brought to Tucson. That’s it for him and those three. The others will learn from the experience and some day be able to draw upon the magnitude of a tremendous Sweet Sixteen and make plays in the mold of their departed teammates.
But there is only one shining moment.
There’s a sound reason they call this thing madness. It’s the natural byproduct of 67 games to crown one team. We celebrate a solitary moment, the one we says shines because it’s the moment in which all of these moments collide into something special. And when it doesn’t happen that way, when someone else captures their own version of the shine, sometimes we forget all that was so special about getting to that point.
Like when the season was debuted in front of a packed McKale, the 1988 team honored and the vaunted freshmen unveiled. Like first tip against Charleston Southern when the promise of perhaps capturing that shining moment was about as green as it could possibly be. Like that first taste of vulnerability as the Clemson Tigers gave the Wildcats their best shot. And then the Cats swung right back, showing the kind of toughness requisite to special seasons.
And Florida. And Miami. And Nick’s block. And Colorado.
Of course Pac-12 play left something to be desired heading to Vegas looking worse for the wear. And then they were found and whether he touched the ball or not Sean Miller loudly and expensively reminded his team that they were exactly that: A team. That he had their back and they his. That individually they weren’t going to capture any moments but that the team would.
Which brings us back to a dribbling Aaron Craft awaiting a screen from his sixth man following yet another dramatic and fervent Wildcat comeback. The kind we’d become accustomed to in this confusing, exhilarating, shining season.
There may be just one shining moment, because not all of them can be shiny.
But I sure enjoyed all the others.
The previews have been written and the heads have spoken. The haters have hated and the contrarians have garnered their page views.
Today is game day.
And if you’re anything like me, you’ve taken casual Friday a sunrise early. You’ve tucked in your today-I-want-to-look-like-a-“friend of the program” polo and put on some decent shoes. You got to work early and explained, with remarkable clarity, the impact your opponent’s sixth man could have on the game should they manage to get out into transition. Cheryl, from accounting, was not impressed.
There is, of course, a phantom doctor’s appointment this afternoon. A joke that is only funny to you and that half the office actually believes is true. The other half rolls theirs eyes and mutters something about your general level of maturity. But you have your game day blinders on; your dual monitors adorning more of the aforementioned previews and voices you love or hate. More fuel for that fire.
And when that first meeting arrives, that Outlook reminder that you’re due in suite 205 in 15…then 10…then 5…Now… Yeah that meeting blows.
It’s this eager anticipation for a game in which we have no bearing that we love this. Maybe you’ve moved past superstition or explosive upset, but when push comes to shove, when the date of the game is some day in March (and even more anxiety-ridden if it’s April), there’s an undeniable excitement.
Your opponent may be better than you. And the national drone may dismiss your game as a cakewalk for your Goliath opponent. Their RPI, KenPom, Sagarin, AP, Coaches, and eyeball poll rating is higher than yours.
Again, there’s a brewing excitement.
Because today, it really doesn’t matter what you did in November or who you signed last June. It doesn’t matter that you dropped a pair to RPI >100s or that you edged a ranked team at home in early January.
Today is about one, March is about one, because we’re trying to get it all down to the one, last man standing.
May your Thursday be Sweet.
Cats fans…you remember it: