Arizona's 25-year streak on the line
TUCSON, Ariz. -- In 1985, Arizona's basketball team, which had gone 4-24 two seasons before, played in the NCAA basketball tournament. The 10th-seeded Wildcats and coach Robert Olson lost in the first round to Alabama.
It was hardly a moment of sporting gravity. It's unlikely anyone had an inkling then of what lay ahead.
The Wildcats and Olson, sometimes known as "Lute," would go on to find a bit of success. There was Olson's first Pac-10 title in 1986, the first of 11 he'd win. And four Final Fours. And a 1997 national title.
Through the years in Tucson, fans understood two things: 1. It was going to be hot in the summer; 2. The Wildcats would earn an NCAA tournament berth.
Shoot, last year Arizona somehow slipped in for the 25th consecutive year despite finishing 19-13 and losing five of their final six games.
That streak is just two invitations short of North Carolina's record 27-year run from 1975-2001.
George Kalil, 72, has watched it all happen -- home, away and postseason. The Wildcats' No. 1 fan has missed only a couple of games over the past 37 years, and he's learned that you can never count a team out. But let's just say Kalil -- and most of the dedicated fan base he leads -- is preparing for disappointment. The Wildcats are 16-14 overall and are 10-8 in the shockingly weak Pac-10. If they do not win the conference tournament this week, that streak will end.
A quarter-century of success as reliable as the sunrise poof.
"We've been pretty much warned, but we'd still love to go," Kalil said. "We'd give our right arm to go."
The warning of which Kalil speaks came from two sources.
First, things started to go haywire when Olson took an unexplained leave of absence at the beginning of the 2007-08 season. That led to the turmoil of interim coach Kevin O'Neill becoming Olson's designated successor and then being unceremoniously shown the door.
Olson tried to come back but health problems prevented it. Associate head coach Mike Dunlap turned down the interim job before the 2008-09 season. Russ Pennell took over, led the Wildcats to a surprising run to the Sweet 16 but wasn't asked to stick around.
The search for a permanent successor to replace Olson featured lots of big names (Mark Few! John Calipari!) and some inexplicable ones (Tim Floyd?). But mostly it featured a lot of embarrassing rejections until a second run at then-Xavier coach Sean Miller, who'd initially turned down an offer, proved successful.
The second warning that the streak was in danger was the direct result of all that mess: the roster. While not devoid of talent, it certainly lacks the future-lottery-pick pizzazz of the prime Olson years. Suffice it to say, the turbulence of "As the Wildcats Turn" didn't create a great recruiting environment.
Fact is, few folks are surprised that the streak might end. The Wildcats opened the season unranked for just the third time in 23 years and were picked to finish fourth in the poor-to-middling Pac-10, which had been ravaged by NBA defections the previous two seasons.
"I don't want to say 'overachieved,' but we've come in right around where everyone would have hoped under the circumstances," Miller said. "Hopefully, our best basketball is yet to be played."
Senior guard Nic Wise arrived in Tucson thinking he'd be part of one of the most stable national powers. Instead, he's labored under four different coaches.
"It will be tough to take [not making the NCAA tournament], but we knew it would be hard coming into the season with our young team," Wise said. "We've never been in this situation before."
Nor have many Wildcats fans, who've had to suffer through a 30-point humiliation to BYU in the McKale Center as well as back-to-back home losses to Oregon State and rival Arizona State. A 24-point beatdown at California on Feb. 25, a third consecutive defeat, had most just hoping for someone to take the season behind the gym and take it out of its misery.
Yet the Wildcats bounced back and won three consecutive games to end the regular season, including a double-overtime thriller over O'Neill and USC in the home finale. They head into the Pac-10 tournament with momentum. And a flicker of hope.
"I'm always positive, but I had to look at reality this season," said Dave Farley, a fifth-year senior and a loyal member of the notorious ZonaZoo. "I'm still optimistic, though. Maybe we'll win the Pac-10 tournament. Our future looks good."
The Wildcats are seeded fourth and will play No. 5 UCLA at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday. That matchup obviously demonstrates the struggling state of the Pac-10's preeminent powers, but the conference, top-to-bottom, has been so inconsistent -- or consistently mediocre -- that it's not inconceivable to imagine the Wildcats making a run and stealing the tournament title and the automatic berth that goes with it.
One thing's for sure. With perhaps only one tournament berth available for the champion, the action should be more intense than in recent years, when four, five or even six teams were almost certain to get invitations.
"I think everybody is going to bring their A-game," Wise said. "Not too many Pac-10 teams are going to get automatic bids, besides maybe Cal. For everybody else, it's going to be all-out war to try to get that top spot."
Arizona fans are preparing for the end of the streak. But they haven't abandoned hope. Miller knows what the streak means in Tucson. He's been reminded often.
"If we win, it would be a great story for everybody," he said.
Ted Miller covers colleges sports for ESPN.com.
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