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Arizona Basketball Can’t Have Its Shining Moment

Since winning the title in 1997, Wildcats fans have endured one heartbreak after another. It only feels fitting that the program would be implicated in an FBI sting weeks before a season in which it’s projected to have the nation’s best team.

Arizona basketball players and coaches Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This column was supposed to be about Arizona head coach Sean Miller. That had been the plan for the last few weeks. Once practices officially started and the general public began foaming at the mouth for college basketball content, I was going to write about how Miller is at a crossroads in his career. He’s a coach with no Final Fours to his name, working at an elite program in the midst of a 16-year Final Four drought. He’s endured a litany of March disappointments, like the time he got Kemba’d in 2011, the time LaQuinton Ross sunk the Wildcats in 2013, the times the Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker Experience downed Arizona in 2014 and 2015, and the time he paid homage to Tom Crean with his dreadful zone offense in a loss to Xavier in the 2017 tournament. Arizona could be the nation’s top-ranked team when the 2017-18 preseason AP poll comes out in a few weeks, and I was going to pose a bunch of rhetorical questions that reached no ultimate conclusion but seemed semi-profound nonetheless. What if it’s actually a bad thing that Arizona is supposed to be so good this season? What if it’s a good thing that Miller has lost all four of his career Elite Eight games? We all know that Miller is a good coach and it would be absurd for Arizona to fire him if he missed the Final Four again, but do we really know that? WHAT IF WE’VE BEEN WRONG THIS ENTIRE TIME?

I was then going to throw in a token mention of Sean’s brother, Archie, taking over as Indiana’s head coach and bust out some age comparisons to other coaches in an effort to give context to where I think Miller should be at this point in his career. (At 48, he’s six years younger than Bill Self, just 16 months younger than Thad Matta, and almost 18 years older than Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay. Whoa!) I may have even gotten reckless by speculating about Miller’s job status and pulled out the “I’m not saying, I’m just saying …” shtick by reminding everyone that Miller’s wife is allergic to the desert and that there are no shortage of former Arizona players who now coach basketball for a living. It would have been a fun column and surely would’ve changed the world for the better. But then the FBI dropped a bombshell on college basketball last Tuesday, an Arizona assistant coach was arrested for allegedly bribing recruits, and my plan was shot to hell.

This is the world that we, as a college basketball community, live in now. The scandal onset by the FBI’s sting operation isn’t going away anytime soon and figures to overshadow everything in the sport for the foreseeable future. My initial reaction when the news broke last week was that this felt like the college hoops equivalent of the Mitchell Report in baseball, at least in terms of pervasiveness, federal government involvement, and potential to serve as a catalyst for reform. Yet while baseball has largely recovered from its steroid era and is putting out as good a product as ever (MLB is juicing the balls, though, which admittedly doesn’t help the point I’m trying to make), the stench of that scandal took several years to dissipate. College basketball is in the initial stages of what will assuredly be a lengthy process.

That’s why an examination of Miller’s career arc feels beside the point right now. When taken at face value, the coach’s situation heading into this season is fascinating. But nobody gives a shit because nothing involving Arizona basketball can be taken at face value anymore. If I want to discuss junior guard Allonzo Trier’s player of the year candidacy or freshman forward DeAndre Ayton’s NBA draft stock, I have to make sure to also mention that Arizona is allegedly paying its recruits. Just look at the replies to Jon Rothstein’s tweet relaying the news that Wildcats sophomore guard Rawle Alkins will miss two to three months with a broken foot. It doesn’t matter what the original story is—all roads lead back to the FBI probe.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t talk about the scandal or that the implicated schools are being treated unfairly. The fallout from this mess could forever alter college sports as we know them, and it’s essential to understand what happened at Arizona, Louisville, USC, Oklahoma State, Auburn, and Miami to figure out how to fix a system that’s long tainted the game. So don’t mistake what I’m saying here as a complaint. It’s simply an observation about what college basketball coverage will look like during this upcoming season. What happens off the court promises to be far more intriguing than what happens on it, and the conversations about the sport will reflect that. Conspiracy theories will run rampant, the media will be accused of helping dirty programs just as much as they’ll be accused of targeting clean programs, and when Pitt loses 10 consecutive games in ACC play, everyone will make the same “Well, at least we know that Kevin Stallings isn’t paying recruits!” joke. The discourse will devolve into a mind-numbing cycle of finger-pointing, name-calling, and hot-taking, and when the dust settles, Rick Pitino will probably issue another statement swearing that he had no idea what was going on.

All the while, Arizona fans, who have essentially had basketball blue balls for two straight decades, will sob in the corner, cradle a bottle of liquor, and demand answers from the basketball gods. This looked like it could finally be the season when they reached the top. What did they do to deserve this?

Xavier v Arizona
Sean Miller
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Miller gave his first public comments on the FBI investigation via a press release that was every bit as bland as expected. And while his statement didn’t directly deny involvement in the scandal, he’s nonetheless doing all that he can to diffuse the situation and detach himself from the allegations. As easy as it is to roll your eyes at yet another coach claiming to not know about something potentially happening under his nose, it’s worth mentioning that just because Pitino is clearly full of shit when he says that he had no idea what went on that doesn’t mean that other coaches are lying when they say the same. Each case is different. It’s plausible that Emanuel “Book” Richardson—the Arizona assistant who was arrested and now faces up to 60 years in prison—was tasked with landing top recruits, used dirty tactics to do so, and then lied to Miller about his methods. It’s also plausible that the entire operation was Miller’s brainchild and that Richardson was one of many pawns in his scheme. Nothing here would surprise me.

But the degree to which Miller gets tied up in this federal investigation isn’t what matters as it pertains to the emotions of Arizona fans. What matters is Arizona being implicated in an FBI sting right before the start of a season in which the Wildcats are projected to the best team in the country. In fact, that might be the most Arizona basketball thing of all time.

Arizona fans don’t need to be reminded of their plight since their Michael Dickerson–and–Mike Bibby–led team won the 1997 national championship, but I have a feeling the rest of the country might. So let’s start here: The Wildcats have not been to a Final Four since 2001. That isn’t awful in comparison to the average college basketball program, given that Purdue and Notre Dame’s most recent Final Four banners have been collecting dust for almost 40 years while Xavier and Missouri’s Final Four banners are nonexistent. It is, however, disappointing for a program that has ranked among the 10 best in the nation by every other metric over the past 20 years. I mean, Indiana and Georgetown both take constant shit for being dormant and dysfunctional has-beens, and they’ve each made the Final Four more recently than Arizona. For God’s sake, George Mason, VCU, Butler (twice!), South Carolina, Wichita State, and Georgia Tech have all been to Final Fours since 2001. Tom Izzo can’t check his mailbox without Final Four appearances spilling out like Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, yet Arizona hasn’t made one since the invention of the iPod? How is that possible?

Arizona v Wisconsin Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

That’s only half of the story, though. The other half is how close the Wildcats have come to ending this drought, and that’s the part of the Arizona fan experience that truly stings. The Wildcats beat the hell out of Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse in January 2003 en route to securing a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, only to lose to the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight a few months later when Jason Gardner’s 3-pointer clanged off the back rim at the buzzer. Salim Stoudamire submitted one of the greatest shooting seasons in college basketball history in 2004-05 (seriously, his numbers will blow your mind), only to see his Arizona career come to an end in the 2005 Elite Eight when Illinois erased an eight-point deficit in the final minute of regulation and Hassan Adams’s desperation heave came up empty at the buzzer in overtime. Derrick Williams consumed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s soul in the 2011 Sweet 16, only for the Wildcats to miss two would-be game-winning 3-pointers in the final possession of their Elite Eight matchup against UConn. Arizona entered the 2014 tournament as a no. 1 seed with a 30-4 record, only to lose by one point to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight when Nick Johnson couldn’t get a shot off before the overtime buzzer. And then there was the 2015 Elite Eight rematch with the Badgers, when another 30-win Arizona team was felled when Dekker hit a dagger with about 20 seconds remaining.

Since 2001, 21 NBA future players have come through Arizona and helped produce eight 25-plus-win seasons, five Elite Eight trips, and four chances to either win or tie those Elite Eight games on the final possession … with zero Final Four berths to show for it. That’s brutal. And I haven’t even mentioned how the Wildcats were ranked no. 1 in the nation for eight weeks in 2013-14, had a serious chance of going undefeated until Brandon Ashley broke his foot in early February at Cal, lost that game at the last second, and then dropped four more without Ashley in the lineup. Or all sorts of other things that have hampered this program, like Mark Lyons playing point guard, Gabe York's dunk attempts, and Miller’s hyperactive sweating.

Arizona has dealt with an assortment of off-court issues, too. Bobbi Olson, former head coach Lute’s wife of 47 years and a figure that some players described as “like a second mother,” was diagnosed with ovarian cancer not long after Arizona won the 1997 title, and then died from the same disease in the middle of the 2000-01 season. Forward Kevin Parrom suffered gunshot wounds in his hand and knee while he was in the Bronx to visit his hospitalized mother just days before the start of the 2011-12 season and missed two months of basketball activity as a result. And Lute Olson was phased out of his position through a bizarre transfer of power over the course of three years. Recently there’s always seemed to be something hanging over this program, and it hasn’t been a national championship banner.

I trust it’s now starting to make more sense when I say that Arizona fans have had blue balls for the past 20 years, as the promise of ascending from a perennially good college basketball program to an established powerhouse has always felt juuuuuust out of reach. And that brings us back to why last week’s news isn’t even remotely surprising for Arizona fans. Of course the Wildcats were going to be implicated in this mess. And of course on the exact same day that the FBI probe was announced, Alkins, who might be the Cats’ best all-around player and averaged 10.9 points per game as a freshman, broke his foot. Nothing else would make sense.

If you really thought that Arizona could enter this season with a top-three team and simply cruise to a Pac-12 title and Final Four berth without some sort of catastrophe emerging, you aren’t familiar with the history of Arizona basketball. At least this time catastrophe had the courtesy of rearing its ugly head in September instead of waiting all the way until March.

No matter what Miller’s level of involvement in the FBI investigation is, things are likely to get worse for Arizona before they get better. It’s key to remember that no NCAA violations are on the table for the time being, as everything is being handled by federal authorities. Yet while the FBI has no interest in vacating wins or taking away scholarships, the NCAA will surely step in and drop a decent-sized hammer on the program if the allegations prove true. Any move Arizona makes from here amounts to a measure of damage control rather than an attempt to skirt NCAA punishment. (For all of the things that the NCAA screws up, the one type of violation that the organization is equipped to handle is a breach of amateurism, something that explains why this would likely be a swift decision once all the details are uncovered even though the North Carolina fake classes case will still be unresolved when the sun swallows the earth in a trillion years.)

D-Day is looming for the Wildcats. It could come during the season (not likely), next summer, or a year or two from now. Nobody has any idea what the time frame looks like, because nobody knows what the FBI has cooking and if/when the NCAA could opt to step in. Arizona may already be missing out on prized recruits because of the scandal. Suddenly, an uncertain future has made the pressure to deliver that long-awaited Final Four even greater than it was a month ago, when it already felt like this year meant everything to those around the team, from Miller on down the line. If the Cats can’t put something special together this season, will they ever be able to again?

The answer is no. They won’t. Because this is Arizona basketball we’re talking about. This is a program that has found itself in a perpetual state of what if, only nobody feels the least bit sorry for it because at least the Cats have the memories of their improbable 1997 tournament run to keep them warm at night. And no, I’m not suggesting that anyone should shed a tear for alleged cheaters. But it’s important to remember that, for the most part, college basketball fans exist separately from the programs they support. As the FBI investigation unfolds and various programs are gutted, it will be the innocent fans who are left to suffer. In other words, everything will be business as usual for Arizona fans.