BLOG: Numbers don't lie: Arizona basketball is elite in every way except one

Posted at 4:18 PM, Mar 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-23 13:58:38-04

On Saturday, the Arizona Wildcats men's basketball team beat a pair of top-10 opponents on consecutive nights in Las Vegas to clinch a conference-best sixth Pac-12 Tournament championship.

It's another number UA can add to its laundry list of all-time accomplishments that includes 33 regular-season conference titles, 69 NBA Draft picks, 28 All-Americans, 32 NCAA Tournament bids, 18 Sweet Sixteen appearances and three straight top-five national recruiting classes.

Yep, the Wildcats check every box you'd expect an elite college basketball program to check -- except the one that matters most.

There's a perception among some college hoops fans (including Wildcat faithful) that Arizona is on the same level as bluebloods like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas. But look a little closer: Arizona falls well short of those programs in national championships and Final Four appearances -- priorities No. 1 and 1a on every program's list.

All of those teams have made at least 14 Final Four appearances and have won at least three national titles. Arizona's four Final Four trips and lone national title come well short of the cream of the NCAA crop.

The Wildcats are in the upper third of NCAA Division I college hoops programs in both categories -- but "upper third" and "elite" are not synonymous.

Consider the following:

-Arizona's only national championship came 20 years ago, and its last Final Four appearance was 16 years ago.

-15 teams have made multiple trips to the Final Four since Arizona's last appearance in 2001.

-15 college basketball programs have won multiple national championships, and 20 schools (other than UA) have won one title.

-21 teams have made more Final Four appearances than Arizona has.

To be fair, the Wildcats have come painfully close to reaching the Final Four several times since 2001. They've made five trips to the Elite Eight since then and lost those games by a combined 14 points (less than three points per game). Two of those defeats came in overtime.

UA coach Sean Miller has been to the Elite Eight four times himself (three times with Arizona, once with Xavier) but is yet to get over the hump -- and you better believe it's eating him alive.

"Now you're at the fourth one, and it doesn't matter what anyone says, you just don't want to hear it," Miller told the Washington Post's Chuck Culpepper about Arizona's most recent Elite Eight defeat, to Wisconsin two years ago.

"You don't want to hear, 'That's a great season.' You don't want to hear, 'Hey, your time's gonna come.' You don't want to hear, 'When you least expect it, you're gonna be here.' You just say to yourself, 'This is the fourth time. I wish I would have lost in the first round.'"

Indeed, the tournament, as Culpepper put it, has been a "cruel bastard" to Miller and the Wildcats in the last decade and a half. But Miller and Arizona have another chance to reach the Final Four in front of them beginning Thursday night. They earned a No. 2 seed in arguably the weakest region in this year's NCAA Tournament. They're healthy and they're playing their best basketball of the season.

A fifth Final Four bid and a second national championship wouldn't just get the monkey off the back of Miller and Wildcat Nation; it would move Arizona that much closer to becoming the elite program that many believe it already is. But until that happens, Arizona will remain firmly entrenched in college basketball's good-but-not-elite category.

The numbers don't lie.