Before the wiretaps, the bribery allegations, and the arrest of an assistant coach, Arizona was still supposed to be the biggest story in college basketball this season.
This was the year for Sean Miller to finally break through to the Final Four. Miller had coached talented teams before in Tucson, but never one like this. Scoring guards Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins both delayed pro careers to return to school. Deandre Ayton was arguably the No. 1 recruit in the country, giving Arizona a 7’1 big man who could dominate from Day 1. There were senior starters at point guard and center, with a group of blue-chip recruits providing depth on the bench.
Miller had twice taken Arizona to the Elite Eight, but always fell short of the ultimate goal.
This had to be the year.
Arizona had no idea how true that sentiment would eventually become. When the FBI corruption investigation hit, Arizona was immediately implicated. Assistant coach Book Richardson was arrested, a top-ranked incoming recruiting class completely dissolved, and rumors of a payment to Ayton ruled over headlines on ESPN.
Arizona became the biggest story in the sport again, only this time for nothing it was hoping to accomplish on the court.
It would have been easy for a school in Arizona’s position to discipline itself. That’s what USC did when its name also popped up in the investigation, sending starting shooting guard De’Anthony Melton to the sidelines all season. Louisville once took a self-imposed postseason ban for fear of the NCAA’s hammer.
Arizona didn’t care about any of that. It supported Miller and kept everyone on the court. Arizona thought it had the best team in the country so it was trying to win the national championship. If the NCAA wanted to scrub that from the record books years from now, so be it.
That dream would die in the most humiliating way possible Thursday night. Buffalo, a No. 13 seed and champions of the MAC, delivered a knock-out punch to Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament that no one saw coming. With an 89-68 defeat, Arizona’s nightmare season was officially sealed.
This year began under the presumption it was Arizona’s best chance. Now that it’s over, it’s easy to see it as Arizona’s only chance for a long time.
Arizona started the season at No. 3 in the polls even with the FBI controversy swirling around the program. It only took a few games to realize this season was going to be a lot harder than expected.
Arizona arrived at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November as the favorites to win the tournament. They left 0-3, finishing dead last, and left with questions about how good this team really was.
The point guard play was a question mark all year. There wasn’t much outside shooting. The defense was underwhelming too, with Ayton’s poor rim protection suddenly becoming a real issue.
Still, Arizona rebounded. It won the Pac-12 in the regular season and then it won the conference tournament. Ayton looked like the best offensive player in the sport, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds per night. Trier scored 18 points per game and Alkins might have been the country’s best third option.
When Arizona was given the lowest No. 4 seed on Selection Sunday, it felt like a vendetta from the NCAA. This team was way too talented to be ranked that low. A lot of experts had them in the Final Four. Some had them winning it all.
Buffalo had other ideas. The Bulls rained three-pointers all night, finishing 15-of-30 from behind the arc. Buffalo even out-rebounded the Wildcats, which shouldn’t have been possible with Ayton and fellow 7-footer Dusan Ristic on the inside. There were no shooters to help overcome the deficit once Arizona went down. They shot only 2-of-11 from three-point range all night.
Concerns that Trier — always a shoot-first player — would take the ball out of Ayton’s hands on offense also came to fruition. Ayton is the best player in the country, but Trier still took 15 shots to his 13 on Thursday.
Everything bad that could have happened for Arizona happened. The future of the program is likely going to be even worse.
Arizona was going to reload. It’s recruiting class was stacked, likely to finish No. 2 in the country behind Duke. Now there’s no one left.
Five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly was allegedly mentioned in the FBI report. He flipped his commitment from Arizona to Villanova. Five-star wing Nassir Little was all but signed, sealed, and delivered to Sean Miller. Now he’s signed with North Carolina. Shareef O’Neal — Shaq’s kid — flipped to UCLA. Four-star point guard Brandon Williams reopened his recruitment.
Arizona is going to lose Ayton for sure. Trier will almost certainly go pro. Alkins probably will, too. Ristic and point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright are set to graduate. Highly-touted freshmen Emmanuel Akot and Brandon Randolph would be coveted as transfers should they decide to go that route.
It’s hard to envision what Arizona is even going to look like next season with so much uncertainty with the FBI investigation. It’s easy to see a scenario where this program isn’t back in the NCAA tournament for a long time.
This was it for Arizona, their one chance to achieve college basketball glory in spite of the NCAA and everything it stands for. It was appealing to cheer for them as an anti-hero, the bad guy who could maybe bring an entire flawed system down.
There was only one problem: this Arizona team was just never as good as it should have been. For as much as the present hurts right now, the program’s bleak future makes it even worse.