NCAA BK

Arizona's streak faces toughest test yet

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Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman is a senior college basketball writer for FOXSports.com. Check out his Yardbarker blog. MORE>>
 
   
 

TUCSON, Ariz.

In these parts, it's placed in the same realm as Joe DiMaggio's 56 or Cal Ripken's 2,632. But I've got bad news for Arizona fans: The Streak will likely come to a halt at 25.

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The Arizona Wildcats have the nation's longest current string of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. It began in Lute Olson's second season at the helm back in 1985 and now stands just two behind North Carolina's all-time record of 27 straight appearances in the Big Dance. It was in serious jeopardy over the last two seasons, but interim coaches Kevin O'Neill and Russ Pennell were both able to prolong the inevitable for, at least, a couple more years. Those guys had sure-fire NBA players to rely on: Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill. New coach Sean Miller will build his team around likely overseas-bound senior point guard Nic Wise and a bunch of unproven, largely unheralded freshmen. When Miller first walked into the locker room at McKale Center back in early April after accepting the job, the situation he saw made what Tom Crean went through at Indiana a year ago appear enviable. There was virtually nothing left. Hill and Budinger had already made up their mind to bolt early to the NBA, and Wise wasn't returning for his fourth coach in four seasons. "I was gone," Wise admitted. "To Europe or wherever." That left a cast of characters that included walk-on D.J. Shumpert, guys like Alex Jacobson, Brendan Lavender and Garland Judkins — none of whom are Arizona-caliber players — and role players such as Jamelle Horne and Kyle Fogg. Arizona had quickly become the bottom-feeder in the Pac-10, with a roster that resembled Oregon State's two seasons ago when the Beavers went winless in the league.
But Miller landed Ukraine native Kyryl Natyazhko, whom he was recruiting while at Xavier, and also was fortunate to be able to re-recruit Kevin Parrom — another top 100 player who was allowed out of his letter-of-intent at Xavier and didn't have any restrictions in following Miller to Tucson. Then, in the irony of all ironies, it was former USC coach Tim Floyd — after nearly taking the job at Arizona before it was offered to Miller — who helped raise the expectations in Wildcat country to the point where fans now don't just hope Arizona will go to its 26th straight Big Dance this season. They expect it. Floyd resigned in the wake of the allegations that he gave $1,000 to O.J. Mayo's "guys" and that began a domino effect that resulted in Solomon Hill, Lamont "Momo" Jones and Derrick Williams all switching their allegiances from USC to Arizona. Then Wise decided to return for his senior season. "There's no way I would have come back if those guys weren't here," Wise said of the freshman class. With each addition, the expectations in Tucson rose — from a team that was regarded as a cellar dweller to one that has fans in the area now believing it won't just keep The Streak alive. "There are people who have told me that we can compete for a national championship," said Williams, who may be the prize of the freshman class. "This year." Even Williams, just a wide-eyed freshman who has no true frame of reference, understands that is a pipe dream. "We have really good players, but it's going to take time for us to be really good," he added. "We want to make the tournament so we're not the team that ended the streak." "These guys are all very talented, but they're only 18," cautioned Wise. "There's only so much you can count on with freshmen. They have a lot to learn." To say the Pac-10 will be down this year is a major understatement. Last year it was the SEC. This year it'll be the Pac-10 that will get hammered nationally. Just four players on the all-league team are back from a conference that had nine taken in the 2009 NBA Draft. And there have been seven coaching changes in the past two seasons. That certainly gives Arizona hope. "Our conference lost a lot of players," Wildcats skilled 6-foot-10 freshman Natyazhko said. "People are hoping we're going to make it 26 in a row. I'm 100 percent sure we're going to make it. There's no doubt in my mind." Arizona State did lose a couple of NBA players. UCLA lost four starters — including first-round picks Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday — and USC has virtually no depth after nearly all of the recruits left soon after Floyd resigned. California and Washington enter the season as the prohibitive favorites in the Pac-10, but neither is considered a national powerhouse. But Arizona has as many question marks this season as just about anyone in the league: A new coach, a new system, inexperienced players and a lack of depth. Wise isn't Mike Bibby or even Damon Stoudamire. Jones isn't Gilbert Arenas or Jason Terry — and realistically is a reserve for a Pac-10 contender. Williams still has a long way to go before he becomes Budinger and for all the natural ability Natyazhko possesses, he's still a far cry from Richard Jefferson or even Luke Walton. This group, the one Miller will take onto the court, won't measure up talent-wise to any that have come through Tucson in the last couple of decades. That's why The Streak is in more danger than ever.
Tagged: Birmingham Southern, Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Southern California, Oregon State, Indiana, North Carolina, Xavier

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