Where once the Cats were right there with Kansas, Duke and a few others, now they are much closer to the likes of Syracuse, Michigan State and. Those programs are still very good programs, clearly top-20 programs, but they are not elite. Michigan State is just three years removed from a Final Four, but they have also been on the Tournament bubble a few times.
Granted, the nature of college basketball has changed. The days of the same teams always being in the title hunt may be gone. Duke has been to just one Final Four since winning the title in 2001 and more often than not gets bounced in the Sweet 16. A year after being a one-seed, UConn failed to make the Tourney.
We could be in an age where parity, early defections and impatient players transferring may mean that even the top programs fail to maintain a previous level of excellence, but that does not excuse Arizona's recent struggles.
To be blunt, the past few years have seen some lows for the Wildcats in the Olson era. They have had their worst seeding since the 80's. They have struggled at McKale and had their worst loss in Tucson ever under their Hall-of-Fame coach.
They even lost a recruit to ASU.
In year's past they could hide down years in a weak Pac-10. That is not the case. UCLA is back, USC is improved and Washington is stockpiling talent. ASU and Washington State appear to be better and Oregon is back after a few down years. Arizona is perilously close to giving up their crown to UCLA and if they are not careful they could find themselves looking up to a few programs. Something that they have not had to do since players were wearing short shorts and had feathered hair cuts and fades.
Next year is VITAL. If things are not improved next year, Arizona may never get back to its former prominence. Odds are the Wildcats will not have Chase Budinger after next season. They return a ton of talent and get an infusion of young freshmen, including two top-25 players.
If the Cats don't make a push next year, you have to wonder if they will be able to attract that kind of talent. They have already taken some hits to the 2008 class by losing the likes of Anthony Crater, Jeff Withey and Luke Babbitt. Babbitt and Crater committed to Ohio State, a school that just three years ago was seen as a football only school, but today is one of the hot programs.
Arizona appears to have enough talent to make a serious run next year. If they don't the doubts may be too great to overcome. If the Cats can't make a deep run next year, they may not have the talent to do so later on.
It is hard to envision both Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger being around for the 2008-09 season. More than likely both will be gone, as will Kirk Walters and possibly Jawann McClellan. If the Cats don't replace them with suitable talent, the slide could continue or at leas be impossible to correct.
That being said, the Cats have the talent to be good next year. Budinger and Bayless should give them to big time scorers. If McClellan can get his knees right, he can be that third scoring option, as well as the scrappy player who can do all the little things, like he did during the 12-1 start.
Assuming Walters gets his medical redshirt, he and Jordan Hill could form a really solid front court. I'd expect Hill to be a better offensive player and could actually be better defensively with the 7-foot Walters next to him.
You'd expect Nic Wise to be better, Daniel Dillon to be solid and Fendi Onobun to get a look. Jamelle Horne should be able to play right away, while many feel Laval Lucas-Perry can give them a shot of toughness.
If this group gels, if they stay healthy and stay focused, they can survive a really tough schedule and be a top-four seed and make an impact. If they do that, then the program should be fine. Talented players will come, guys will stay enthused and the past few years will become a blip on the radar, like the first round losses of the early 90's.
If the Cats don't win next year, then it may be over. At least over as we remember it. The days of being mentioned in the same breath as Carolina, Kansas and Duke may be over. Instead it may be the Gators getting lumped in with the Bruins, Jayhawks and Tarheels. It could be UCLA and the Pac-10, not Arizona and the rest of the Pac-10.
Arizona appears to be at a crossroads. One good season and the ship could be righted. One more average season and the glory days could be behind us.