The circle-the-wagons approach worked. Arizona went on a tear, highlighted by three significant Pac-10 wins on the road, thus clinching the regular season title.
But since then, those unimpressed fans have reared their heads again. I base this on a very unscientific approach. As co-host of a local Wildcat postgame show on Fox Sports 1290 AM, I understand that those who bother to call a talk show in the first place tend to be passionate about the subject at hand, and as such, that passion can lead to overzealous knee-jerk commentary. I recognize that many UA basketball fans are pleased with where Arizona is, and as such will pull for the team throughout its tournament run.
However, whereas last year was sort of a honeymoon where anything Arizona did was a welcome surprise, this year it's almost as if the fans of Wildcat basketball are knocking on the door of divorce court. Hell, just last Friday, after the Pac-10 tournament first-round loss to UCLA, a caller dialed up Rich Herrera's afternoon show and blamed the Wildcats for not playing with heart. As such he said Arizona was no longer "his team".
After the UA toppled Oregon to close out the regular season, a couple callers made reference to the intensity displayed by the likes of Kentucky and Oklahoma. Never mind that Arizona had closed out the conference title. Never mind that Kentucky was playing Florida while Oklahoma battled Texas. That intensity, or lack thereof, the fans felt, would be Arizona's downfall in the Big Dance.
Perhaps those prophecies will come to light, but I doubt it. Arizona could lose a game for a number of reasons, but lack of intensity won't be one of them.
I would argue, instead, that while Arizona has done a pretty darn good job dealing with the pressures of being the nation's top team — it spent three weeks all season out of that position — many of its fans have felt the noose tighten. Remarkable given Arizona's almost unrivaled consistency in college basketball over the course of the last 15 years. Remarkable given Arizona's four journeys to the Final Four. But for some reason, some UA fans seem impervious to anything short of perfection.
To my recollection the local discontent — or at least the vocalization of that discontent - has never reached this level. The 1988 team benefited from the Honeymoon. The 1994 and 1997 teams were pleasant surprises. Even though there were huge expectations in 1998, the shock of that setback seemed to be instantaneous. It wasn't a building thing. In 2001, fans lamented the loss of Bobbi Olson and gave the team the benefit of the doubt.
No benefit this year. For some of these fans, Arizona hasn't played a quality game all year long. They've already set themselves up for the letdown. They're prepared to label the UA the great underachiever. Well, here's the tough part about being No. 1. By that definition, anything less than going the distance is underachieving. Final Four. Not enough. Reaching the title game. Nope. Bring home the ring. Simple as that.
But given the nature of the NCAA tournament, the chances are better the Wildcats won't win the ring. Fear not, it's the same formula for Kentucky, for Oklahoma, Texas and insert "more intense" team here. Is Arizona one of the favorites? Absolutely. Deservedly so? Absolutely. Will Arizona win it all? In the one and done scenario that is the NCAA tourney, it's anybody's guess.
But if Arizona is the last team standing, I suspect those same dissenters will be the first ones talking about how they never lost faith, how they were behind the team every step of the way.
On the court, Arizona is ready to embark on the drama of the NCAA tournament. Some of its fans could do a better job trying to handle the pressure.
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