As a senior, team captain Justin Wessel was a part of the 2000-01 Arizona team that challenged Duke for the National Championship in Minneapolis. Wessel was in pursuit of his second title as a member of the Wildcats, but his quest fell short, as Duke won an 82-72 victory over UA from the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
It's been 10 years, and Wessel still holds some hostility towards the Blue Devils, although he admits that his animosity would be directed toward any team that snatched the National Championship away from him.
"Obviously they're such a polarizing program, and for obvious reason I dislike them strongly, but for me it could've been anybody," Wessel said. "Just the fact that I could've had my two championship rings and coach (Lute) Olson could've had his second, and Duke was the one that took that from me.
"Going into my senior year I was a captain and I came off the bench. I wasn't a star, but I had a role on the team more than I did when I was a redshirt-freshman. I could've won a title that I was more involved with, and Duke just happened to be the one that took that from me."
Wessel looks back on that season and remembers lofty expectations for the Wildcats, but also recalls a season filled with adversity before they had a chance to play for the title.
"That year we had high expectations because of being ranked preseason number one," Wessel said. "We brought some of that upon ourselves with some of the comments we made. Some of the guys had said prior to the year we'd be undefeated in conference and that we'd win it all easy.
"We got off to a slow start with Loren (Woods) suspended for the first six games of the season. Then Bobbi Olson passed away and we didn't have coach for a while. Then we finally got everybody back for the end of the Pac-10 season and we hit our stride at the right time. We got clicking and everybody on the same page at the right time and we kept that momentum going."
After dispatching of its first five opponents in the tournament by an average of 16.2 points per game, Wessel recalls riding high heading into the National Championship game and being very confident in his team's chances at bringing a second title back to Tucson.
"I just remember going into the game and Final Four, I thought that we were going to win," Wessel said. "I remember thinking that I didn't think we could lose, we were playing too well and were too talented. Then we had the Gilbert injury at the end of the Michigan State game and Luke broke his thumb in practice the week before.
"I just remember going into that Duke game not even debating the fact whether we were going to win or not, it was just a matter of when it was going to happen. I just thought from the beginning that it was something we would win; it was just a matter of time.
"Then came that stretch where (Mike) Dunleavy hit three threes in a minutes and I thought ‘oh this isn't good' because we weren't expecting him to do that. I kept waiting for Gil or J-Gardner for one of their patented run and it just never came."
Fast forward 10 years to today, and Wessel is happy that the program is on its way back to its former prominence.
"I've been watching from a distance for the past few years," Wessel said. "I'm always watching from afar and it's exciting. It's good to be back on the map and I don't get those phone calls from guys that I played with at different schools trying to run their mouth at me, so it's good to be back."
As previously mentioned, Wessel was a part of the 1997 team that won it all as well as the 2001 team that finished as runner-up. When forced to choose which team this year's Arizona squad compares to, he likes the way that the 2010-11 Wildcats compare with the 1996-97 team that won it all.
"I would say they're more like the 1997 team," Wessel said. "The Pac-10 was down this year compared to the rest of country, so they didn't get the attention and no one knew a lot about Derrick Williams or about the team as much as they should which was the same for us in 1997.
"We were a four-seed in 1997, and we had a couple close games the first two rounds and we got to the Sweet 16 against Kansas and no one gave us a chance, kind of like these guys playing Duke, the defending champions and number one seed.
"Another similarity is that we had the big names of Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, and Miles Simon, but it was a different guy each night. This team with Derrick Williams, he's the go-to guy, but there are so many different guys that have stepped up these first few tourney game that you don't know where it's coming from, so it's sort of hard to prepare."
With the result of the 2001 game hardly forgotten, Wessel has faith in the Wildcats that they'll be able to avenge his defeat this time around in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim.
"I think Arizona is too athletic for Duke and we can definitely cause problems with their big guys," Wessel said. "Obviously I'm biased and I think we're going to win, but we can't let those Duke shooters get hot. When Duke is shooting the ball well from the perimeter they can beat about anybody."
Wessel remembers 2001 game
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