The Big Tease

We held out hope, but in the back of our minds we had a feeling it was probably going to end this way. All year long Arizona basketball was little more than a tease, and in the end it just couldn't deliver.

If ever there was a glaring example of the difference between college basketball and college football it was the just-concluded 2004 Wildcat men's hoop campaign. If this was football, the UA would have been out of the picture early on, and we could have focused on smaller triumphs instead of somehow hoping, dreaming, for greater things.

But this is college basketball, and we've come to expect a lot of joy from Arizona. Sure, the finality of the season has been difficult 19 of the UA's 20 consecutive NCAA tournament trips, but after much reflection, more often than not the feeling we leave with is one of pride.

Arizona generally accomplishes good things, and it's something we've come to expect from this program. So much so that time after time after time after time after time, despite an endless litany of concerns, there was still a glimmer of hope.

But the 04 version of Wildcat basketball was little more than the Big Tease.

We should have known that even a program as stellar as Arizona would have a hard time overcoming the multiple losses to key inside players, yet we watched as adjustments were made and the UA actually recorded an impressive early-season win over highly-regarded Texas at Madison Square Garden.

They can do it, we thought. They might actually be able to do it. They can deal with one inside player. They can adjust by moving a 6-4 swingman to power forward. They can compensate for a thin bench. They can, they can, they can.

We dealt with the difficult showing at home against Marquette, the lackluster performance against St. Mary's and the competitive effort of Louisiana-Lafayette in the Fiesta Bowl Classic.

Hey, a win's a win.

But then they'd stumble.

When Stanford drubbed Arizona at home, we figured it's early, there's still a chance to catch them the second time around when this young team really begins to click. Then we figured perhaps the loss at USC was a wakeup call.

And lo and behold, that's what it looked like. The UA blasted UCLA, bombed Oregon State and looked nearly invincible against Oregon. The tide had turned.

Nah, it was just a cruel joke.

They endured a brutal four-game road trip that culminated in the heartbreaking loss at Stanford, perhaps the day the season really came to an end.

Yet Arizona seemed to gain life again with strong efforts at home against UCLA and USC, followed by a shootout win at Oregon, the only team in the conference that had greater problems than the UA on the defensive end of the floor.

Turning the corner? Nah. Welcome to Oregon State, followed by the Salim Stoudamire suspension in the loss at home to Washington.

After suspension served, surely that could bring this fractured group together. And indeed, Arizona topped Washington State and ASU to close out the regular season, then ousted pesky USC in dramatic fashion in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament.

Maybe Arizona was piquing at the right time. Or maybe Arizona was about to lose to Washington for the third time this season.

Amazingly, despite limping into the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats got one more opportunity at redemption. The prospect of playing Duke in round two stared them straight in the eyes. Now there's nothing like upsetting the nation's top program when you're having a down year to make up for such a rollercoaster campaign.

And for 27 minutes we were whetting our whistle. It was going to happen. With a 14-point second half lead and showing complete control over No. 8 seed Seton Hall, Arizona was going to get its chance.

And then the wheels fell off, for the final time. Somehow, before our very eyes, the UA melted down. Nearly flawless for a three-fourths of the game, Arizona, as a collective, forgot how to execute on the offensive end. It forgot how to rebound on the defensive end.

It watched the season evaporate at the hands of an inferior opponent. It watched destiny slip through its fingers. Or more accurately, it watched destiny unfold before its very eyes.

All season long, Arizona was like the stripper in the glass booth. You pay your quarter, the cheesy music plays, and she shows more skin, only nothing really revealing before the partition blocks the view. So you pay another quarter, and it's the same old thing. Again and again and again and again. Yet you keep coming back, hoping against hope that you'll finally get the pay off.

But it never arrives, and after awhile the game grows old.

We witnessed the Hassan Adams dunks, the Stoudamire offensive explosions, the Andre Iguodala triple-doubles, the Mustafa Shakur fastbreaks. In short, we saw a lot of nice moves, a lot of elegance, but in tandem the steps always seemed off.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, Arizona played out its last act. It got its card punched by a tougher customer. Not by a better dancer, but by someone who wanted to be there more.

The tease left the Dance early, and left us empty-handed.

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