State of the program: Arizona
The Streak is over, but Sean Miller and Arizona are determined to start another
The weekly schedule told Derrick Williams everything he needed -- and wanted -- to know.
"I was excited because this was the first week since last year that we had a pregame meal," Williams said. "That means we're close."
Close, that is, to the fresh start Arizona is desperate for.
After a quarter-century of unprecedented success, the inevitable happened to the Wildcats last season: The Streak came to an end. Arizona's run of 25 consecutive NCAA tournament berths stopped with a 16-15 record and a fourth-place finish in a down Pac-10.
But the Streak's end was merely the final coda in a three-year slide. Known for a run that represented both a model of consistency and excellence, Arizona instead turned into an unsteady soap opera as it clumsily closed the Lute Olson era.
Since Olson's 25-year career awkwardly staggered to its end in 2007, the Wildcats endured the contentious one-year run of interim coach Kevin O'Neill, followed by the stopgap hiring of interim coach Russ Pennell and finally the ignominy of NCAA sanctions that erased O'Neill's season for Olson's misdoings.
Certainly no one wanted the Streak to end, but in a strange way, it may be exactly what the Wildcats needed.
As Sean Miller begins his second season, he has a completely clean slate. The final remnants of the previous regime are gone now.
"This is a new era," Williams said.
As ugly as Arizona's freefall from the top of the aristocratic heap was, the Wildcats aren't likely to be stuck among the hoi polloi for long. In two years, Miller has stockpiled enough talent -- too much, in fact -- to rebuild a program for the long term.
The Wildcats, thanks in large part to the return of Williams, already are tabbed to finish second in the Pac-10. That may be due to a lack of suitors capable of finishing behind Washington as much as to Arizona's promise, but the mere fact that a team that skidded through four coaches in four years is even in the conversation for an NCAA bid is a testimony to where most people think Arizona is headed.
"For any new coach taking over a program at a high level like this one, it's very, very hard," Miller said. "I've been here 18½ months. I know every day. Every day has been so important, but every day has been difficult. I know from my experience at Xavier that once you get something built, you can build it to last. But getting there, it's a grind."
Miller has not waved any sort of magic wand over Arizona or looked for quick fixes. But in keeping his head on straight, he's managed to steer the Cats back in the right direction.
The day he was hired, people wanted to ask and talk about the Streak. But as much as the fiery competitor in him planned to fight to keep it alive, the realist knew that it wasn't likely.
He not only stepped on the floor with five freshmen who had no clue what to expect from the college game, he inherited a roster filled with players who weren't exactly keen on trusting the new guy -- another new guy.
Willing that group to the NCAA tournament would have required more than coaching moxie; it necessitated pixie dust.
"It was no disrespect to me or my staff, but there was a lot of mistrust," Miller said. "And from day one, everyone wanted to talk about the Streak. It was an amazing streak and I could appreciate it, coming from Xavier. But what got me through it, and what I told our guys was, we weren't here to talk about what we were going to do in one year. We were building for the next three or five years."
Confronting the elephant in the room not only deflected expectations; it allowed people to understand the grand plan.
When the grand plan produced fruit in a matter of months, the thermostat under Miller's seat dropped even further.
Every day has been so important, but every day has been difficult. I know from my experience at Xavier that once you get something built, you can build it to last. But getting there, it's a grind.” -- UA coach Sean Miller
Between O'Neill's messy departure and Pennell's temporary hiring, the cupboard was fairly bare for Miller. When Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill bolted for the NBA, Miller was looking at crumbs.
Rather than hodgepodge together a bunch of available recruits, Miller landed players who could play in his first year.
That quintet is now the core around which all of the expectations are based.
"We know it starts with all of us sophomores," Williams said.
And as good as things look for the Wildcats right now, the future is even brighter. Next season, Miller will bring in a class currently rated the eighth-best in the nation by ESPN. Point guard Josiah Turner, shooting guard Nick Johnson and big man Sidiki Johnson all rank in the ESPNU 100.
The only problem? Miller is already over budget. With just one senior on the current roster, Miller will have two more players than he has available scholarships next season.
It's not exactly an awful problem to have, and history has shown elsewhere that those things generally have a way of working themselves out.
"College basketball is a different game now than it was a decade ago, or even five years ago," Miller said. "You're always in charge of getting a program for right now, but you have to constantly build for the future. And to rebuild is even more challenging when you have a scholarship situation like we do. But you have to look to the future."
Everyone else in Arizona is.
The same fan base that clung so tightly to its past in the form of those 25 NCAA years has more than embraced the program's rebirth.
"A lot of people have told me that we're their favorite team since the  Elite Eight team," Williams said. "With a new coach, the guys that are here, the recruits we have coming in the future, I think people realize we're bringing the program back to where we were."
The Streak is dead.
Long live The Streak.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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