Final Four (and more?) for Arizona

Final Four (and more?) for Arizona
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now

One of the dumbest narratives of the NCAA Tournament is this: Arizona's Sean Miller is the best coach never to go to the Final Four.

Where to start with that? First of all, Miller is 46. Lute Olson was 47 before he took the Wildcats to their first Final Four, followed by nearly two decades of further excellence. Miller has lots of time. It's a little early to smack him with the King of All Backhanded Compliments.

Besides, it's as if that label is punishing Miller for getting so close.

He took Xavier within a shot of the Final Four; that should be considered more of an incredible achievement than a failed opportunity. Same holds true for his second regional final appearance. Miller defied all logic by getting Arizona to the Elite Eight in his second season, 2011, and would have advanced if Derrick Williams and/or Jamelle Horne could have hit long jumpers at the end vs. UConn.

And, last season, that epic regional final against Wisconsin easily could have had a different outcome if not for a late controversial charging call and a last-possession shot that never happened at the end of overtime.

It's definitely a case of when, not if, Miller gets to the Final Four.

That said, there is no time like the present.

"We have had a few tough losses, and every time we had one, we kind of took a step back and changed a few things on the team, changed some dynamics," junior center Kaleb Tarczewski said of Arizona's 31-3 season. "We did a good job of responding to that. I think everyone has realized this is it. This is the year for us."

Arizona, seeded second in the West, begins its NCAA Tournament run Thursday morning against Texas Southern. The Tigers have a couple of nice wins -- at Michigan State (although the Spartans were without star forward Branden Dawson) and at Kansas State (although those Wildcats are schizophrenic) -- but they aren't constructed to beat UA. The Tigers are too small, don't shoot the 3-ball well enough and aren't great on defense.

OK, enough about them.

Want to do more of the bracket?

Arizona would face Ohio State or VCU in its second game. The Buckeyes have one fabulous player in 6-foot-5 guard D'Angelo Russell, but that's about it. A combination of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell should work just fine on Russell. VCU is known for its "havoc" defense, but do you really want to challenge McConnell with presses, thereby opening the court for Arizona's athletes? Hint: The answer is no.

Moving on ...

Let's presume third-seeded Baylor faces UA in the Sweet 16. The Bears are tricky. They are long, athletic and play multiple zones, which can be Arizona's Kryptonite. On the boards, it will be strength on strength. Baylor is the second-best offensive rebounding in the country. Arizona is the best at preventing opponents' offensive rebounds.

Top-seeded Wisconsin, of course, looms again in the regional final. We'll cross that bridge with hundreds of thoughts, thousands of words and all kinds of video if it comes to that. For now, let's call it a toss-up.

After that ... Final Four.

"If you don't love this time of year, you shouldn't be playing sports," McConnell said Wednesday.

You never can tell when the One Shining Moment will strike, but it should be now for Arizona.

McConnell has played in 135 college games and, as almost any Arizona fan will tell you, should have been Pac-12 Player of the Year.

Brandon Ashley has played in 91 games, starting 77, and is playing the best basketball of his life. He's hungry after missing the NCAAs last season with a foot injury.

Tarczewski has started all but two of his 105 games at Arizona and had a recent stretch of outstanding play.

Hollis-Jefferson is, as Ashley calls him, the team's Energizer Bunny. He's as unique a lock-down defender as there is in the country.

Gabe York, who has played in 86 games at Arizona, has been hot, hitting 19 of 39 3-point attempts in the past eight games. More than a shooter, he's also attacking off the dribble.

Stanley Johnson is a downhill driver to the basket who hit seven 3-pointers in the Pac-12 tourney. Don't even bother to call him a freshman any more. He won four California state titles at Mater Dei, has multiple gold medals from international competition and has continued to cut down nets at Arizona. The NCAA Tournament stage will not be too big for the Stanimal.

"As long as we do what we do, I think we have a good chance to beat anybody in the country," Johnson said.

Should be fun, right? Expectations are high, but that comes with wearing "Arizona" across the front of your jersey.

"I feel like maybe in the beginning of the season, there was some pressure in managing that and just having a great time playing basketball," Tarczewski said. "That's the reason why we play sports -- to have fun, be competitive and enjoy winning."

To me, it looks like winning time. Experience. Size. Defense. Rebounding. Balanced offense.

Miller and the Wildcats will be knocking on the Final Four door next year ... and the year after ... and the year after ... and for the foreseeable future.

But this is the time -- this year, these next couple of weeks -- to knock it down.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.