By Tom Danehy
ABOUT THE WORST feeling I had while watching the Arizona Wildcat basketball team go down to its third first-round loss in the past four years is that I had almost no feeling at all. Ho-hum, shrug, and wait 'til next year.
Midway through the first half of their game with Miami of Ohio--which I believe is in Ohio someplace, although nobody had ever heard of it before they beat the highly touted Arizona by-golly Wildcats--I got that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. At first I tried to dismiss it as a by-product of my Lenten diet of popcorn and salad, but then I realized I was watching another Wildcat NCAA loss in the making.
That's about the only actual feeling I had. The rest was resignation. Even though the Cats had the lead, I just knew they were going to play badly. They'd let the inferior Miami team stick around way too long and then get burned at the end. The Cats would play half-speed, thinking they could turn it on later when they had to. But you can't play basketball like that. You drive a car in second gear for a long time, it doesn't want to go into fourth.
While it would be fashionable to dump on Coach Lute Olson for his team's early demise, I refuse to buy into it. These days, from the time a kid first picks up a basketball, he or she is thinking of the NCAAs. Making it to the city playoffs in junior high, going to state in high school. Then, the NCAAs. It's a sure bet that far more kids fantasize about playing in the NCAAs than even in the NBA finals.
Every basketball player in this country has the shared experience of shooting around by himself, pretending there are six seconds left on the game clock in the NCAA championship game, his team is down by one, he takes it to the hole, pulls up, shoots...IT'S GOOD!
With years of time and energy focused on achieving such a goal, how could it not kick in when they are actually but a few games away from reaching that pinnacle? How could people who've dreamed their whole lives of making it to the NCAAs not get fired up?
All I know is that if a ballplayer can't get himself fired up for such a thing, there isn't a coach in the world who could (or should) do it for him.
Adding to that is the fact that most of the players on the Cat squad remember the sick feeling when they lost to Santa Clara a couple years back, and some even remember losing to East Central Middle Western Tennessee State the year before that. If that doesn't serve as aversion therapy, what can?
The Cats have everything going for them. They play in a great arena before sellout crowds. They have a schedule that's geared toward the NCAAs, liberally sprinkled with quality opponents at home and on the road. There is simply no excuse for playing tight or playing scared when they get to the NCAAs.
Worst of all, they didn't play tight or scared. They played soft. Unforgiveable.
Khalid Reeves was a good ballplayer, but losing him to graduation should not have prevented the Cats from making another serious run at a national title. They had four starters back and some good people coming in. But it never panned out. Amazingly, with the exception of Damon Stoudamire, none of last year's players showed any improvement this season over last.
Ray Owes was inconsistent all year and almost fell off the face of the earth there at the end, all the while complaining about how he wasn't getting his props (recognition). Corey Williams spent the entire season (unsuccessfully) trying to show that his performance against Arkansas in last year's Final Four wasn't a fluke.
Joe McLean's game went so far south, penguins are kicking it around on an ice floe off Tierra Del Fuego. Because of various eligibility problems, Ben Davis started the season late, ended it early and spent the time in between in foul trouble.
Freshman Miles Simon was coming along just fine, then he got hurt and needed surgery. Reggie Geary got hurt and sulked the rest of the season.
Joseph Blair came in out of shape, blew off his schoolwork, then when he was finally starting to play well, hurt his ankle. I'm a firm believer in luck being the residue of design. And bad luck being the punishment for ill-preparedness.
Finally, the bench was probably the weakest since Lute's first couple years at UA, when he was forced to go with guys who would have trouble winning an intramural championship.
All of the ingredients for disaster were there. All it would take was a bad shooting day by Damon Stoudamire. And sure enough....
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth