Sean Miller and Kaleb Tarczewski

Sean Miller will have to lean on his big men more in 2014.
Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Losing at the buzzer in the NCAA tournament always feels like crashing into a tree. You’re driving along – full speed, full speed, full speed – bang. It’s over.

Sometimes a loss is devastating because you know you missed your best chance to reach a huge goal and now it’s time to rebuild. Fans of the Arizona Wildcats, however, hope the near miss of 2013 was just a pit stop on the road to bigger things next season.

In beating Belmont and Harvard, UA coach Sean Miller kept his record perfect against lower-seeded teams in the NCAA tournament. Including his time at Xavier Miller is now 8-0 as the favorite according the seed line and a respectable 3-6 against teams seeded higher.

It’s a great recipe for tournament success. Beat the teams you’re supposed to beat then take your shot at the big boys. Add in the fact Miller’s two Arizona losses came down to last-second shots and you feel confident the Wildcats have a coach whose best tournament days are ahead of him.

Grant Jerrett vs Ohio State

Grant Jerrett led the Cats in blocked shots and made 40% of his 3s.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The most frustrating stretch of Thursday’s game started at the 4:52 mark of the second half. Arizona held Ohio State scoreless for 3 ½ minutes but the Cats could only shave two points off the six-point deficit because the UA missed six straight shots, including four 3-pointers.

The right guys were shooting, too. Seniors Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom took five of the six ill-fated attempts.

Lyons caught fire over the final 80 seconds and went on his own personal 7-1 run to tie the game before one of those buzzer-beaters that will have you shaking your head 15 years from now and holding up your thumb and index finger a quarter inch apart.

I know I’ll never be able to stay at a La Quinta (Ross) Inn again.

All in all, Lyons and Hill had strong games, exactly as hoped. But for Parrom the storybook ending wasn’t there. After everything he’s gone through you hate to see his college career end on a day he shot 25% from the floor and missed four of the five 3-point shots he took. Maybe he’ll catch his first break in a long time and the NCAA will grant his waiver request for another year of eligibility.

When the 2012-13 season started it looked like Arizona was a year away from a peak. Then the team kept winning and this year’s ceiling got raised. But the Pac-12 losses added up and UA fans went back to gazing upon next year with longing eyes.

Now, with a good-but-not-great Sweet 16 run in the rearview mirror, Wildcat fans really hope the 2013 team was a year away from championship contention.

Brandon Ashley vs Ohio State

Brandon Ashley averaged 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds for the season.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The first order of business is keeping the three freshmen big men away from bad advice. Not one of the trio of Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley dominated this year but that hasn’t stopped many an impatient basketball player from diving into the NBA waters in recent years. All three could use another year in the college game to get stronger and each will get a chance next season to transform from role player into star.

I will be disappointed if any of them suddenly up and leave this year but I think it’s naïve to expect all three to still be around as juniors. So you hope there’s a sense of urgency with that recruiting class to finish what was started. Hill and Parrom got the program out of disarray to a Pac-10 title, two Sweet 16’s and an Elite Eight. It’s up to the guys known as Zeus, Grant and Bash – with a big helping of Nick Johnson – to complete the job.

A big question mark next season will be outside shooting. If Parrom doesn’t return it means 410 career 3-point baskets are exiting the building on the backs of the seniors. Can Jordin Mayes play in November through February the way he does in March? Will Gabe York do enough on defense and handling the ball to earn the minutes needed to let his scoring ability develop?

On the defensive end the concern is also on the outside. At 6-foot-3 Johnson was able to successfully stymie point guard types but taller perimeter players like Allen Crabbe (31 points), Shabazz Muhammad (23 points) and Spencer Dinwiddie (21 points) all had big games in beating Arizona. Is 6-7 incoming freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson the answer?

Slow down guys outside and the three bigs should be able to protect the rim. Add in an all-defensive-team point guard in T.J. McConnell and the Cats have the potential to roll out a smothering defense in 2013-14, which is exactly what Sean Miller has been looking for.

If he finds it, 2014 could finally be the year Arizona fans have been waiting for.

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