Notes from Wonderland: Expectations met

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Although some may accuse me of having a "loser's mentality", I fully believe that no matter what happens on Saturday, Arizona's season is a success. While most fans earmark the Final Four as the benchmark for success, I fully believe that for an elite team, the Elite Eight is a realistic goal for success.

In this day and age of parity in college basketball, it is unfair pressure to expect a team to advance to the Final Four. Due to the one-and-done format of the Tournament the best team does not always win. It may be a bit cliché, but the NCAA Tournament is a crapshoot. All it takes it one bad night, a bad call, a hot shooter and your season is over.

"To win a national championship you have to be really good and really lucky," Lute Olson said. "I've won one but we've had other teams that we thought could've and should've won."

To me, most Arizona teams better make the Sweet-16. Rare occasions, like Jason Terry's senior year for example, a second round exit is acceptable. For the special teams, the truly great teams, a trip to the Elite Eight is expected.

Year in and year out Arizona is a top 20 team, most likely a top-10 team. I think it is only natural that the Wildcats should make at least an appearance in the second weekend. To me that makes 1991, ‘96, and '02 good, positive seasons. While advancing further would have been nice, it was a little bit of a stretch to think that they could go much further. To me the 1997 team would have been a success to just get to the Kansas game. Everything after that was gravy, the sweetest gravy a college basketball fan can taste.

Likewise, those same expectations make 1990, '92, '93, '95 and 2000 disappointments. The Cats were just too good to not make it out of the final weekend. Even with the injury to Loren Woods, the Cats should have beaten Wisconsin. The Cats should never drop those first round games.

For the truly special Wildcat teams, the teams we know are going to be good, the Elite Eight should be the minimum success tolerated. With a truly special team, a team that has earned a top-two seed, the first three rounds should be easily winnable games. Even in the Sweet-16 you are facing a team that will be no better than a four seed, which makes them a fringe top-20 program. However, you get to the Elite Eight and the stakes are higher. Suddenly you are facing a top-10 team. Would there really be any shame in losing to this Kansas team? All they are facing is a team that was a pre-season No. 1 or No. 2, won the Big 12 and should have been a one seed.

My theory would not be the same if the Tournament was a best-of-seven series. 1998 is the greatest example of this. To this day, I still believe that if Arizona played Utah 10 times, they win nine of them. Unfortunately the Cats played the one. They were off that day. The triangle and two caught them off guard and Michael Dickerson went cold. If Dickerson hits a few early shots, who knows what happens? But, if you look at it, is there any doubt that Arizona was not one of the two best teams in America that year? That Utah team was no fluke, they advanced to the title game. They were not as good as Arizona, but they were good.

If you look at all of the other Arizona teams that truly had a shot at the Final Four, only the 1989 team failed to live up to expectations. Sure the '90, '91 and '93 teams were good, they earned No. 2 seeds, but they weren't special. Not like '88, not like '94, not like '01 and not like '03. In 1989, the top-ranked Cats lost on a last second shot to UNLV. The Rebels were a four seed but were a few years away from being special themselves. It actually came down to Kenny Lofton trying to draw a charge and giving up the game winning three. Sure it was a fluke play, but a fluke play should not cost you a game to a No.. 4 seed.

The rest of the teams not only advanced to the Elite Eight, but made it to the Final Four. That was great, but look at the teams they had to face to get there. In 1988 the Cats beat North Carolina, a team with J.R. Reid. There would have been no shame in losing that game. 1994 saw the Cats beat a talented Missouri team. It may have been a stretch to give them the top-seed, but that team had several NBA players, including Anthony Peeler. Few would bat an eye if a one-seed, who won the then Big Eight, beat the second seeded Wildcats. In 2001 the Cats went toe to toe with an Illinois team that certainly had the talent to play for the title. In all of these cases the Wildcats won, but honestly, few would call a loss a shock.

To me only a few select teams should be penciled in to the Final Four, not in this day and age when seniors are few and far between, quality depth is lacking and scholarship limitations make mid-majors a danger. Kansas in 1997 should have gone to the Final Four. UNLV in 1991may have been one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled. They rightly should have been in the Final Four, of course we remember what happened in Indianapolis that year. Duke shocked the undefeated Rebels. Had they played a best-of-seven not many would doubt the Rebels would prevail.

The very nature of the event is what makes projecting it so hard. The Tournament is a series of "what ifs?". What if Steve Kerr did not go cold against Oklahoma in '88? What if Lofton does not fall? What if Dickerson catches fire in '98 or hits the late jumper against Kansas in '96? What if Loren Woods is healthy in 2000? What if Gilbert Arenas is healthy in 2001? What if in the same year Jason Gardner hits from the outside against Duke?

"What ifs?" apply to Wildcat opponents. How far could the Cats have gone in '91 if Terry Dehere is not on fire for Seton Hall? How about if Corliss Williamson is off in '94? In 2001, what happens if Jason Williams picks up his fourth foul or Mike Dunleavy misses a shot or two?

The same can be said of Wildcat wins. What if Miles Simon does not get hot at the end of the South Alabama game in '97? What if Dickerson cannot shut down Ron Mercer in the title game? What if Loren Woods misses free throws against Illinois in '01 or Luke Walton misses that shot in overtime against Gonzaga?

This Wildcat team is good, very good. They certainly have the talent to advance to the Superdome and even cut down the nets. Then again, so does Kansas. I, for one, won't hang my head if the Cats lose on Saturday. To me they have met expectations.

Now is the time to exceed them.

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