Times have changed.
The Cats are 11-5 at the McKale Center this year. Sure, by other program's standards, that's not a bad home record, but for the Wildcats, it's something that they and their fans haven't seen before during the Lute Olson regime. The Cats have never lost that many games at home in one year…never. Even last year's squad, which was vastly inferior to this year's team in terms of sheer talent managed to go 12-1 at the McKale Center. The Cats had also never been beaten as badly as they were by UCLA just recently and UNC earlier this year since the early years of Coach Olson's tenure.
Before last Saturday's game against UCLA, CBS made a note that under Lute Olson, the Cats have never struggled this much at the McKale Center. According to CBS, the Cats had won 241 of their last 260 home games heading into this season. 241 of 260! That comes out to a 93 percent winning percentage at home.
The mystique of McKale has been a topic of discussion throughout this season. Some people have brought up the fact that the Pac-10 conference is just that much better. Sure, that's a valid argument. Teams like Washington State and Southern California are no longer considered part of the bottom tier. Throw them in with teams like UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, and Washington, and you've got yourself a pretty good basketball conference.
Others have brought up the fact that the Arizona basketball program isn't part of the "top tier" anymore. While their recent struggles over the past couple years provide backing to that statement, I still feel like Arizona is one of the top basketball programs in all of America. They still can throw down a pretty outstanding and impressive resume. I just feel like they've hit a wall in terms of success. All top programs go through it, whether you're dealing with college football or basketball. When you have as much success as Arizona, or say a UCLA, UNC, or Duke on a year to year basis, you're bound to have a hiccup here and there and falter below expectations.
However, if you ask me, it's neither of the two that I've already mentioned. I have discussed this with a few other Cat fans over the last few weeks, and I simply feel like McKale just doesn't intimidate or "scare" the opponent anymore. You can tell that UNC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington State, and USC weren't awed by McKale this year. They came into McKale with a sense of swagger and confidence that they weren't going to let McKale get the best of them. Even when Arizona would make one of those infamous runs at home, those teams knew that they could still prevail. Things weren't going to get out of hand for the opponent as they had in the past.
When I was watching the Kansas play Kansas State the other night, I kept thinking about why the McKale Center can't be that hostile…or that energetic…or that emotional. With every basket, or every call that didn't go their way, the Kansas State crowd ALWAYS reacted. There was never a dull moment with that crowd.
McKale Center is still loud, at least for much of the game, but it is no longer a unique environment in the Pac-10. In the late 80's and early 90's there were not a lot of intimidating arenas in the league. McKale consistently sold out, and even if it lacked a proper student section, it was loud.
Other Pac-10 arenas did not stack up. Mac Court has always been tough, but it got better as the Ducks got better. Pauley always had its share of sell outs, but when the Bruins were down, the fans were stereotypical L.A. fans.
That is not the case today.
Today there are a number of good venues in the Pac-10. Pauley is as rocking as it has ever been. Maples Pavilion is as good as ever, even if the floor does not move like it once did. Hec Ed in Seattle used to be a morgue, now it is one of the best home court advantages in the Pac-10.
Even some of the half-empty venues have strong student support. ASU's students have been the one constant at Wells Fargo. The Cal students are very underrated. The new Galen Center at USC could be very good as Tim Floyd continues to build the Trojans.
Once McKale was intimidating, now it is another in a line of many good arenas.
One irony is that the student section is better than ever…whey they show up. Lute Olson has pleaded and begged for a better atmosphere at the McKale Center. Olson was instrumental in getting the student section condensed. That was the good news. Now the students are in a general admission section, they paint their faces, they dress up and they are loud. The problem is that they have only sold out the student section on a few occasions. Also, by condensing the students, you have removed small pockets of loud fans in a sea of alums.
I'm not out to blame anyone or point fingers. I am simply wondering what happened to the intimidating McKale Center? The McKale Center that no one wanted to play in, or the one that boasted one of the biggest home court advantages in all of college basketball.
Hopefully it's an aberration. Hopefully the struggles of the whole season is an aberration. One bad year at home may not be a sign of things to come, but that's one bad year that we have not seen in decades.