Saturday, March 29, 2014

Requiem for the 2013-14 Air-Zona Wildcats

It's always difficult to stomach a tough loss. One could resort to blaming the referees or they could just man up and say that it wasn't their night. The pain seeps in more when you look back on all of the memorable highlights and wins of the season, only to come up short in a game. For the Arizona Wildcats, that loss came in the single-game elimination NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.  All of the alley-oops and dunks couldn't lead the team to their ultimate goal: a National Title. It couldn't even lead them to a Final Four berth as they came up short in 45 minutes at the Honda Center. However, the beauty and retraction of the annual NCAA Tournament is that one loss and you're done. On the flip side of that coin, you only need six wins to take home the championship (unless if you are the 2011 VCU squad that went 5-1 only to fall to Butler in the national semifinal). This is a requiem for the 2013-14 Arizona Wildcats' Men's Basketball Team's season. Try saying that three times fast. Anyway, as a University of Arizona Athletics supporter, I have followed this team for a number of years. Sean Miller has done a superb job in recruiting athletes to get this team back to where it belongs: the National spotlight. However, Coach Miller has also followed up on the tradition of coming up short in the tournament setting. If you follow Arizona basketball, you might question me on this statement by saying, "Did this guy even see Arizona throttle a No. 1 seeded Duke team in 2011?" Why, yes, I did see Arizona eviscerate an overrated Duke squad by a score of 91-77. The tables turned when Lamont "Momo" Jones pulled up for a transition basket to put Arizona ahead and Jamelle Horne posterized Kyle Singler while Derrick Williams posterized the entire Duke defense. But I digress, because both Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne each missed three point attempts that would have sent the Cats to Houston. That was the last shot that the Wildcats had a high enough caliber team to scratch the surface of tournament success. Under Miller, the Wildcats have lost the Conference Tournament at the buzzer three times in five years and still advent won one since 2002. However, given the animal that is collegiate basketball and the leviathan that is professional basketball, there is that lure that pulls athletes away from the college game oh so early. This creates a rebuilding project every time a season ends, especially for the superior teams, which challenges every coach.

Looking at this 2013-14 squad, I was excited because I thought there was no way they would not win a National title. I was looking forward to a new design on the 2014-15 Arizona Wildcat's jersey that had two stars on the top, one with '97 and one with '14. They were no doubt going to win the 'ship in North Texas. That was almost true, as the Wildcats featured a dominant frontline of seasoned sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski while also welcoming one of the nation's top recruits in Aaron Gordon. The back court featured juniors Nick Johnson and newcomer by way of Dusquene, TJ McConnell. A knock down shooting sophomore Gabe York waited to come off of the bench while an extremely talented and athletic Chester, PA native, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would come off the bench with him. There was no way they couldn't win. No way. Except for injury.

The first game Arizona lost was a 60-58 nail-biting loss at the hands of the California Golden Bears at Haas Pavilion. A close, regular season loss in the midst of a "Gold-Out" is nothing to hang your head for, but Arizona lost there strength in their front court as Brandon Ashley went down with a foot injury. After the loss, things just weren't the same as the Cats barely beat Oregon at the McKale Center and later lost at ASU. In my opinion, losing to Arizona State deems your football or basketball season as a failure, so I personally wasn't too optimistic at that point. However, Sean Miller managed to change my mindset as the Wildcats demolished the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder by a score of 88-61. They followed up the win by dominating both Cal and Stanford at home, but the fast pace blowouts couldn't keep up. The Wildcats finished their regular season with a loss in Eugene to the Ducks. The Wildcats couldn't turn the tables in the PAC 12 Conference Tournament as they fell to UCLA. Onto the NCAA Tournament.

Despite four losses, the Cats managed to convince the committee that they were worthy of the second overall seed, hence the No. 1 seed for the West Region. After playing an uninspired game against the Weber State Wildcats, I wasn't terribly confident in having them win the whole thing. However, they were fortunate when they placed against the Gonzaga Bulldogs, a fundamentally sound yet unathletic team. The Wildcats toyed with the Bulldogs as they advanced to the Sweet 16, set up for a rematch with the San Diego State Aztecs. In what proved to be a much more physical affair than their first game, the two teams played with drive and emotion with the Wildcats emerging victorious. Arizona would then be set up for a date with the Wisconsin Badgers, a team notorious for having four "white" starters. Again, fundamentals. The Badgers team that I saw was not more athletic. They didn't have a single dunk. I don't remember the last time Arizona did not dunk in a game. However, I digress. The Wisconsin players knew how to play, despite their lack of athleticism. They would have to shoot their arms off because they can't drive well, pass as much as possible because they can't set up their own shot, scoot their pivot feet around just enough so it wasn't a blatant travel, and make good decisions. They did all of that and in turn, beat the two most athletics teams in the tournaments field, Baylor and Arizona. It's tough to accept that.

So, now that the books are shut on this past season, the question begs: what now? After LaQuinton Ross drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer that put a nail in the 2012-13 team's coffin, I was quite upset yet optimistic. I realized that championships can't be won with even the most talented freshman class because those players lack experience. Next year (this year), the team would be much better though. They'd have a nice combination of Grant Jerrett, Angelo Chol, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Aaron Gordon, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in their front court. Wait a minute, Jerrett and Chol didn't play for Arizona this year. No, Jerrett was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder and is currently in the D-League and Chol was crying on the bench after Arizona knocked out SDSU from the tournament. Realizing this, I can't help but wonder: What if?

This is what we as fans and spectators of collegiate basketball need to realize. There are so many what if's that dreaming will leave you dwelling on the past. To hardly even play in college as a freshman and then get drafted has become far too easy. To simply transfer and develop for a year on the bench has become far too easy. The counterargument is that the traditional powerhouse programs can just as easily reload with a talented recruiting class. The Wildcats have arguably one of the better recruiting classes in the nation as they will welcome Stanley Johnson, Craig Victor, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Tyler Dorsey, Dusan Ristic, and JUCO talent Kadeem Allen on campus this fall. So obviously, next year's team is going to win the National Title, right? Gordon will be replaced by Dorsey. Stanley Johnson will replace Nick Johnson and score more points. Even if Tarczewski leaves, an ambidextrous Ristic will take his role. Even if either Ashley or Hollis-Jefferson choose to leave for the NBA, they'll be replaced by the Victor-Allen tandem. So all is not lost, the 2014-15 squad still has a great chance at achieving what this year's team didn't accomplish. However, if college basketball has taught me anything, it is that senior leadership and superb guard play is what wins games in March. The Cats won't have that leadership unless players stay. Which they won't. They'll have the alley-oops and highlight dunks again, but they won't hold onto one of their better players long enough to season him into a leader. The players who become the senior leaders are the players who weren't talented enough to be drafted earlier in their collegiate career. If I have learned anything, the vicious cycle will continue. History will repeat itself when Stanley Johnson declares for the draft after he hangs up his custom Arizona-Jordan basketball shoes for the final time when the Cats fall short of the 2015 National Title, just as Aaron Gordon couldn't deliver this year. I'm sorry Sean Miller. It's the way basketball is played in the desert and you'll have to coach with the players' best well-being in mind. Perhaps Miller will capture that elusive Final Four berth and National Title when he replaces Mike Krzyzewski as Duke's next head basketball coach.

May the 2013-14 Wildcat's season rest in peace.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Case for Mr. Turner

If you've watched any college basketball lately, you would have heard of the outcry  against one-and-done collegiate athletes by now. Now that the madness that is the first week of the NCAA Basketball Tournament has passed, a number of traditional powerhouses have experienced an early exit from the dance. With blue-blooded programs such as the Kansas Jayhawks and the Duke Blue Devils watching from home, one can't help but wonder about the effect of underclassmen declaring to play professionally. And I'm not talking about Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. I'm talking about elite collegiate players who are currently underperforming in the NBA such as Ben McLemore and Thomas Robinson, former Jayhawks All-Americans, and Austin Rivers, a former stand-out Duke guard. What if Kansas and Duke had those players still on their rosters? Kansas would be packing their bags to head out to Memphis for the Sweet Sixteen and America wouldn't know where Mercer was on the map because Duke steamrolled them. However, history writes with a different quill and we are forced to write off our brackets with red ink.

So, what does the parity of the NCAA Tournament have to do with the smiling gentleman at the top of this article? Well, first off, let me introduce him. His name is Josiah Turner, a former five star and No. 11 high school prospect ranked by Rivals on Yahoo!

The Sacramento native committed to the University of Arizona to play basketball for the Wildcats under Sean Miller. Unfortunately for both parties, Mr. Turner had troubles with drugs and alcohol. He underperformed during his freshman season at Arizona and was dismissed from the team shortly after the Wildcats were ousted by Bucknell in the first round of the NIT. All was not lost for Turner as he could still be drafted due to his tremendous upside and potential. However, the NBA did not accept Turner initially, leading him overseas to play for a professional Hungarian team. Due to bedbugs and other poor conditions in Hungary, Turner left for Canada to play professionally. With his attitude out of check, he was shown the door after a number of confrontations with his head coach. Now, Josiah Turner is playing in the NBA's Developmental League for the Los Angeles D-Fenders. With a spot on an NBA roster within reach, Turner's attitude has improved and so has his skillset. Just as he displayed his tremendous ball-handling skills in high school, Turner is now impressing at this level with much better decision making than he previously demonstrated in college. Turner would have been a junior if he had stayed at Arizona, but like his fellow recruit and former teammate Nick Johnson, both are on their way to an NBA roster.

So what's the point of talking about Mr. Turner? Am I upset that he didn't stay at Arizona for a few more years? No. If Josiah had a better attitude and stayed away from drugs during his freshman year, he would've been drafted in a heart beat. He was and is that good. However, Turner wouldn't have been good enough to develop into a good NBA player if he jumped straight from freshman year to professional life. That's no knock on his ability as more and more one-and-done players leaving college basketball for the NBA are underperforming. I think it would be better suited for these players who intend on spending one year at college to instead spend that year in the developmental league. Skip college altogether because these young men don't have much interest in earning a degree when they have dunk competitions in their futures. College life also holds too much temptation for some of these young men as they are lured by college girls, parties, and boosters.

It's time for college basketball and collegiate athletics to separate collegiate sports from professional sports. The NCAA champions education and athletics, not athletics over education. By becoming a student athlete, a student would play collegiate sports while being offered a scholarship in return, a win-win situation. If the athlete is so hell-bent on making money as soon as possible, let them be, but send them to developmental leagues that are more professionally oriented than collegiate athletics are. That's the case for Mr. Turner.