Pedersen on Sports

Perhaps it's time to just go ahead and give in to Wildcat fever

This space has been used at least a few times in the past to pooh- pooh this town's infatuation with UA sports, especially when it's at the expense of other sporting options—yes, they do exist here—that end up getting ignored.

But even I have to admit, it's a pretty good time to be a Wildcat fan.

With minimal exceptions (cough, women's hoops assistant coach named in harassment lawsuit, cough) we're finding ourselves in the midst of one of the great stretches of success and good fortune for Arizona athletics.

The Wildcat men's basketball team is off to the second-best start in school history, at 15-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country heading into the Thursday, Jan. 9, showdown at rival UCLA. With a talent-laden team that features standout upperclassmen as well as two of the nation's top freshmen in Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the UA has returned to its perch atop the college hoops world, where it spent so much time during the Lute Olson years.

After a few seasons when tickets were actually available to some games, McKale Center is back to perpetual sellout status. And plans for $80 million of renovations—starting with a gargantuan overhead video scoreboard—will likely keep the arena in the rotation for hosting NCAA tournament games and for regular spots on national TV.

That scoreboard also provides more pixilated fodder for the thousands of blue hairs who savor every chance they get to disagree with referee calls.

While basketball is at the pinnacle, football is making a spirited climb up its own competitive mountain, and this past week saw some significant progress in that trek.

Arizona pounded Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl (now I want to buy AdvoCare, maybe even sell it, though I'm still not sure what it is) on Dec. 31, marking back-to-back 8-5 seasons in Rich Rodriguez's two years in Tucson. The win was part of a huge four-day boon for the Wildcats, starting with the previous night's pathetic loss by Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, and then capped two days later by the unprecedented news of an actual five-star high school recruit committing to play football at UA.

Whether Jalen Tabor and his reddish-hued flat top becomes a household name in Tucson or he turns out to be a spectacular dud remains to be seen, but for now the fact that the safety from Washington, D.C., chose Arizona over Alabama (!) is significant in its own right.

How good are things going for Wildcats football? It depends on what you think counts as "good." Ka'Deem Carey has had two great years and he's considered a first-round NFL draft pick if he leaves school early — which he probably will, although as I'm writing this he hasn't made his decision public. And RichRod's turnaround in the desert has earned him a spot on the coaching carousel rumor mill. Internet chatter began late Saturday night that he's among the coaches being considered for the vacancy at Louisville.

The good times don't stop with just UA hoops and football. We're about to step into arguably the school's most successful sports season, with the perennial championship-contending softball team and the back-on-top baseball team both about to open their 2014 campaigns.

Regular readers of this column may recall that I'd previously suggested Mike Candrea hand the reins of the softball program over to someone else, but I didn't really think that was going to happen.

And it didn't. Instead, Candrea has another solid team, one that no doubt will be ranked nationally when the Wildcats open play Feb. 7 at home against Southern Mississippi. It's one of at least 31 home games (not including the postseason) that will be played at Hillenbrand Stadium. They're must-see for anybody who hasn't been to one. If you think the McKale crowd gets down on the officials, wait until one of "our girls" is called out on a third strike.

Baseball begins play on Feb. 14, when UA hosts Kent State in the first of (no joke) 23 straight home games. That homestand stretches nearly the entirety of what would have been the Major League Baseball spring training slate, for those still sore about pro ball bailing on Southern Arizona.

The spring will also mark the debut of Arizona's latest collegiate sport, sand volleyball. The inaugural season begins March 7 when the Wildcats (or is it Sand Cats?) host a two-day tournament that features ASU, Arizona Christian and Grand Canyon. UA converted a portion of the former Jimenez football practice facility southwest of McKale into four sand courts, complete with special grains trucked in from some place where there are actual beaches.

If collegiate sand volleyball is anything like the pro beach volleyball I've seen on TV, well ... yeah, I think that's gonna be on the to-watch list this year.

Yeah, pretty much everything is coming up Millhouse for the UA athletic program right now. Whether that continues is anyone's guess, but it's sure a fun ride.

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