April 2, 2001: Arizona loses to Duke by ten points in the national championship game. The Wildcats, hampered by injuries to team MVP Gilbert Arenas and MVP-2002 Luke Walton, didn't have enough to overcome Duke's shooting and some "questionable" officiating and had to settle for being America's second best team. Immediately after the game, star forward Richard Jefferson told the media, "I'll be back next year, my best friend (Walton) is here and we'll go to another Final Four next year too. I'm coming back."
Two weeks later, RJ was gone.
May, 2001: Junior power forward Michael Wright and sophomore guards Arenas and Jason Gardner join Jefferson as early entrants into the NBA draft. Already devastated by the graduation of center Loren Woods and key reserves Gene Edgerson, Justin Wessel and Lamont Frazier, Arizona fans begin preparing for the first "rebuilding year" since Lute Olson took over in 1984.
Early June, 2001: Jason Gardner plays poorly at the NBA pre-draft camps and is advised to return to Arizona for his junior year. Swallowing his pride and showing the kind of courage that has made him a Wildcat legend in only two years, Gardner sucked it up and announced that he would be back for his junior season.
Late June, 2001: Jefferson is a Lottery Pick in the NBA draft while Arenas, Woods and Wright all slip into the second round. Immediately, there is speculation that maybe Arenas made a bad decision by leaving after only his sophomore year.
Later that month, Olson is asked about the state of the program as many fans have been wondering about who would pick up the pieces with only one starter returning along with career-subs Walton and Rick Anderson. Olson says something that makes everyone think he knows something we don't. "Anyone expecting doom and gloom around here is in the wrong place," he said. "I think we'll have a very solid team."
No one east of Harrison Road believes him.
September, 2001: Pick-up games start in earnest and many fans get a chance to see the new freshmen and new-and-improved redshirt junior Anderson play for the first time. Speaking only from a personal point of view, Salim Stoudamire impresses the most, along with Dennis Latimore. Stoudamire rarely missed a shot over the course of the afternoon and the connection with his cousin Damon became obvious right away.
October, 2001: Sophomore shooting guard Travis Hanour, who was expected to compete for the starting off-guard position, unexpectedly transfers from the school. Many believe he got a case of "Ruben Douglasitis", which happens when players see an incoming freshman that they have no chance to beat out. With Douglas it was Arenas and with Hanour it was Stoudamire. Arizona finds itself down to nine scholarship players with practice set to begin in a few weeks.
October 28, 2001: The intrasquad Red/Blue game is played and, other than Gardner, the most impressive player on the floor is freshman center Channing Frye. The comparisons to the recently-departed Loren Woods begin in earnest.
November 8-9, 2001: Arizona surprises everyone but themselves as the Wildcats play five true freshen and beat #2 Maryland and #5 Florida to capture the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York City. After the games, Olson says to an ESPN camera, "I am SHOCKED!"
He was almost believable too.
November 17-December 1, 2001: Arizona plays three more top 25 teams in succession, winning at #22 Texas and beating #5 Illinois while losing a close one to #7 Kansas in McKale Center. In the KU game, Stoudamire shoots 2-19 from the field and Gardner's career-high 34 points weren't enough to stop what would become America's best team.
December 8, 2001: Luke Walton, coupled with his near triple-double vs. Kansas, has his coming out party against Purdue in Anaheim at the Wooden Classic. After the game, John Wooden tells Luke's father, Bill, to, "tell your boy Luke that he's a good player. It's fun watching him play".
Is there possibly a greater compliment in the basketball world than one from Coach Wooden? Rhetorical question.
December 22, 2001: Arizona is served its first dose of "Why defense is important" in a clinic put on by the Oregon Ducks in Eugene. Oregon hands Olson his worst loss ever at Arizona in a 105-75 pounding of the Wildcats.
December 28, 2001: Wildcat star Luke Walton strains his Achilles' tendon in a 20-something point win over Pepperdine and is out for the next three games. Arizona struggles mightily with offensive fluidity.
January 4-6, 2002: Oregon again humiliates Arizona, winning 90-80 at McKale Center in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. Two days later, however, the Cats showed what kind of character they had as a team when they overcame a 21-point deficit to Oregon State before winning 94-87. That was the start of a very exciting month.
January 17, 2002: Luke Walton had only been back for three games but tonight against the first place USC Trojans, he showed just how valuable he is to Arizona. Walton recorded his first (but almost certainly not last) triple-double against USC with 27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and also collecting four steals and blocking four shots. It's college basketball's best all-around performance of the year. Arizona wins 97-80.
January 19, 2002: Arizona trails #9 UCLA 73-53 with 13:51 to play in the game before going on "The Run". The Cats outscore the Bruins 27-2 over the next three minutes and take their first lead on a Gardner three-pointer from the wing; the McKale Center crowd explodes!. As UCLA returns to its bench after calling a timeout following Gardner's three, Gardner is seen yelling at the Bruins from halfcourt. The warrior point guard from Arizona screams, "This is MY house! This is OUR house!" UCLA stands no chance after that point and loses by ten, 96-86. It is the greatest second half comeback in Arizona history.
January 31-February 2, 2002: Arizona pulls off a weekend sweep of Cal and Stanford in the Bay Area and returns to first place in the conference standings after sweeping the Washington schools at home a week later. The talk is about Olson and the coaching job he is doing this year with the young Wildcats. Some people are calling it the finest moment in his long and distinguished career from a coaching standpoint.
February 14-16, 2002: UCLA and USC sweep Arizona in Los Angeles in two terrific games. The Bruins get a last second three-pointer from Jason Kapono to win by one point even though Arizona had a shot at the buzzer to pull out the victory. USC beats the Cats by five in the Sports Arena but the mood after the game is anything but somber. Arizona associate head coach Jim Rosborough, walking to the team bus, says to a gathering of media: "I like our team. We're good."
February 28-March 2, 2002: Stanford comes into McKale and beats a lifeless Arizona team. The Cats played with zero energy and paid for it with a loss that ended any regular-season conference championship hopes. Two days later, however, Arizona plays like it did back in 1988 when it destroys a top 25 Cal team by 46 points, 99-53. The momentum is back and so is the confidence level.
March 5, 2002: Gardner and Walton are named first-team All-Pac-10 players for their great seasons and Stoudamire wins the conference's Freshman of the Year award. Oregon's Ernie Kent wins the Coach of the Year award over a very deserving Olson.
March 7-9, 2002: Arizona sweeps through ASU (73-56), Cal (90-78) and a red-hot USC team (81-71) to win its fourth consecutive Pac-10 tournament championship. Luke Walton is named the tourney's Most Outstanding Player and is joined by Gardner and Stoudamire on the All-Tournament team. The second half of the USC game might have been the best 20 minutes of basketball the Wildcats have played all season long. That is good news for fans of the team and very bad news for anyone that plays Arizona in the Big Dance.
March 10, 2002: Arizona is seeded third in the ultra tough West Region and must face Big West champion UC-Santa Barbara in the first round. The good news is that the Wildcats get to play in Albuquerque for the first two rounds and possibly in San Jose for the regionals. The bad news is that Arizona's bracket is loaded with teams ranked #3, #5, #6, #7 and #14. Some experts are calling the 2002 West Region the toughest bracket in Tournament history and many fans are upset with the pairings, saying it's not fair to have such a difficult draw.
But to quote Lute Olson from earlier in the year, "Anyone expecting doom and gloom around here is in the wrong place."
When Arizona defeated USC for the Pac-10 tournament title, Olson was opposed to letting the team cut down the Staples Center nets. After some prodding from the team, Olson relented, saying, "All right, it will be good practice for three weeks from now."
There is only one goal. And it is the same as last year and it will be the same next year: To have someone wearing an Arizona uniform standing at the top of a ladder cutting down the nets.