The Nine-Minute Nightmare

Wildcat fans knew it would be a gauntlet going in. The three seed having to upend a pair of national title contenders, one of them virtually on their home floor. A gauntlet it was, one that eventually caught up with the UA in one of the more breathtaking, heart-pounding, exuberant, and crushing weekends in Arizona basketball history.

The more tournament appearances a team makes, the more likely it is something new will happen. Arizona experienced two new occurrences during its stay in the Windy City. The UA had lost tournament games at the buzzer, but had not prevailed against a higher seed in a buzzer-beating situation. That changed Thursday night when Salim Stoudamire drained a 15-footer that propelled the UA past Oklahoma State and into its fifth Elite Eight in nine seasons.

Stoudamire was not a scoring factor in the Illinois encounter, but he did dish out seven assists as Arizona controlled play for the first 16 minutes of the second half, in charge and all but making reservations for St. Louis. We know the rest. The nine-minute nightmare that will be analyzed, re-analyzed, and discussed in painful terms among Wildcat fans for years, possibly decades to come.

Illinois was tougher, it was more aggressive, it made better paths to the ball during Arizona's rash of turnovers, and most importantly, Illinois hit every shot. For the Illini it was a rally for the ages. For Arizona, an eternal torment.

That said, Arizona isn't the first team to see a huge lead slip away in an NCAA tournament game. It happened to West Virginia earlier in the day. It happened to Duke against UConn, Rhode Island against Stanford, Maryland in the 2001 semi-finals against Duke. I'm certainly forgetting a litany of other examples. But closer to home, Saturday it happened to Arizona.

And in the process it created a maelstrom of pain for a team that battled from a disastrous 2004, learned the basic tenets of defense, and became one of the most efficient offensive teams in the land by season's end.

The nine-minute nightmare will always linger like an uninvited guest for a team that provided its fans with one of the great individual seasons in school history. The Stoudamire renaissance ranks as one of the supreme storylines in the legacy of this program. On the outs, disenchanted, a fan whipping post, the guard was nearly shown the door, but instead buckled up and put on a shooting display that will likely not be duplicated at this school. He hit game-winners against UCLA, ASU and Oklahoma State and looked like a sniper at other times en route to honors as the conference's top career three-point marksman. He is fourth all-time in scoring at Arizona, and must be included, along with Miles Simon, Mike Bibby and Sean Elliott—and on a higher plain than Jason Gardner and Jason Terry--as one of the true clutch players to pass through Tucson.

The nine-minute nightmare will always linger like an uninvited guest, but it cannot dampen the development of Channing Frye, who was marvelous in the Illinois game. Considered soft by some, Frye was among the best centers in Division I his senior year and is firmly entrenched among the best at his position at Arizona. In the future, conversations about great centers will always include Frye near the top. Frye was a relatively under-recruited prospect, but became a game-changer for the UA when it was all said and done. Given the makeup of the NBA, and its interest in athletic big men who can shoot and run the floor, Arizona may never see a player like Frye again.

The nine-minute nightmare will always linger like an uninvited guest, but it should not overshadow the growth of Hassan Adams. At the onset of his junior campaign, Adams was little more than an athletic highlight reel who could dunk and crash the glass. By season's end, he was the toughest matchup in the NCAA. While his shot was never consistent, he did drain three threes—a third of his regular season total—when Arizona needed it most in the Oklahoma State game. He was simply unstoppable in the Illinois matchup. Sadly, Adams might be remembered for his final collegiate play, where it appeared he froze and forced up a poor shot at the end of the Elite Eight overtime. But he has a warrior mentality, and should he decide to jump to the pros, that competitive fire will be missed.

In some ways it feels like more than the end of the season. Some believe this is the end of an era of sorts. The Arizona recruiting class features a number of newcomers ranked in the 20 to 50 range. There are no McDonald's All-American high-accolade studs like the players signed by North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, Louisville, Michigan State and UConn, et. al. Furthermore, the Pac-10 appears on the verge of significant improvement, which could conceivably cut into Arizona's recruiting advantage on the west coast.

Lute Olson is 70.

Then again, Frye wasn't highly lauded. Stoudamire slipped because of his size and attitude issues. There's certainly talent coming back. Kirk Walters appears capable of being a better defensive force than Frye, perhaps closer to the Loren Woods mode, although he likely will never be Frye's equal offensively or athletically. Ivan Radenovic made significant strides and looks very comfortable in the system. If Mohamed Tangara gets healthy, and it appears he's well on his way, Arizona's inside game looks solid.

On the perimeter, Jawann McClellan could be big-time. Questions linger about Chris Rodgers, who has loads of talent but has always struggled with the team system, and Mustafa Shakur, who must bounce back and build from an off-season of personal reflection. The Chosen One now appears to be the chosen scapegoat for the UA's failure. During the remainder of his tenure, he has the opportunity to control the show. The talent is certainly there to be successful, but he must borrow from Stoudamire's example to complete the on-court package.

Off the bench, Jesus Verdego looks like a kid who can score, and once he figures out the nuances of the offense while improving his effort on the defensive end, he can be a significant contributor. The incoming freshmen provide Arizona with an influx of athleticism and length on defense, and if one or two can contribute as McClellan and Walters did this year, that's a good sign.

These aren't the end times. Tough times yes. Painful times indeed. Unforgettable times. Without a doubt. But unforgettable can mean very different things. The positives of Arizona's 30-win campaign, in reflection, should far outweigh the disappointment of the nine-minute nightmare.

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