Diehard Arizona Wildcats men's basketball haters were sure just a few short weeks ago that this was the year that the Cats' incredible streak -- 25 straight seasons in the NCAA national tournament -- finally would end.
After all, BYU beat the Wildcats by 30 points down in Tucson at the end of December as a shooting guard by the name of Jimmer (yup, Jimmer) Fredette dropped 49 points against the homies.
It truly looked like the worst U of A team since Lute Olson took over the program in the early 1980s.(By the way, Sports Illustrated's preseason pick for the 2002-03 team shown to the left made it to the Elite Eight.)
But something odd (and quite pleasing for Wildcats fans) has happened:
The team actually is playing some fierce and gutty basketball, winning four league games in a row en route to a 6-3 record in Pac-10 play and a first-place tie with the California Golden Bears at the halfway point in the season.
Yesterday afternoon's thriller over Cal in Tucson was a good case in point. The Golden Bears are a veteran team, filled with players who have been through a bunch of hardcourt wars during their three years on that squad.
They probably are the best team in what has turned out to be an off year for the Pac-10, what with several players (especially from UCLA) turning pro early and the freshman crop being a bit less than it's been in recent years.
But Arizona stuck around for the entire 40 minutes and held Cal to just one basket over the final 5:23, winning by four points. The Wildcats were led by their own senior, Nic Wise, who scored a career-high 30 points.
So here's the deal.
Arizona has nine more Pac-10 league games. If they go 6-3 again (as they did in the first half), they are likely to win the league outright or end up in a tie.
If they go 3-6 (anything is possible in this highly competitive, if somewhat talent-challenged league), they will have to do especially well in the postseason Pac-10 tourney to earn a spot in the NCAA's.
Circle the date of February 21, three weeks from yesterday. That's when ASU, which is only one game behind the two league leaders, heads to Tucson to play the Wildcats.
It's looming a lot larger than "just" a rivalry game -- it could be for first place in the Pac-10.
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Who woulda thunk it?