1997 championship street banner

The aging banner stands alone. Photo by Wildcat Universe

Final possession, Final Four on the line, final shot… Finally?

Finality.

The Arizona Wildcats lost for the fourth consecutive time in the Elite Eight, all on last-second shots, extending fans’ frustration to 13 years. It takes a look at history to put the current emotions into perspective and prepare Wildcat Universe for another year of waiting.

I completely understand and share in the disappointment. If the San Diego State game was one that would spark the random fist-pump during the week this loss to Wisconsin is going to cause head-shaking for months if not years to come.

So close the Final Four. Again.

What makes the wait so agonizing is Sean Miller’s tournament progress has been the opposite of Lute Olson’s. Olson won early, winning his first four Elite Eight appearances going back to his time at Iowa and five of his first six. He then lost late, dropping his last two to finish with a 4-3 record in regional finals at Arizona.

You take the decline of the program at the end of the Olson era plus the rebuilding under Miller (with two interim coaches in between) and you end up with a 13-year drought that intensifies the pain of this particular defeat.

It’s the “again” next to “so close” that makes it hurt even more.

What made Lute’s early tournament record so fascinating was the feast-or-famine nature of it. He lost in the first round in his first appearance at Iowa then the next year he went to the Final Four. He lost in the first round his first three appearances with Arizona then won the West Region the next season. So his first NCAA tournament win at both schools resulted in the Final Four.

On the flip side, Miller has enjoyed more early-round success than Olson did. Lute notoriously had three one-and-done tournaments in four years (1992-1995) while Miller is 6-1 in the opening round and 5-1 in the round of 32 including his time at Xavier. That’s a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in five straight appearances with three Elite Eights.

The second Elite Eight, in 2011, is also making Miller a victim of his own success. In the middle of rebuilding Arizona – missing the tournament two of his first three seasons – he had the surprising Derrick Williams-led run to the regional finals including the manhandling of Duke in the Sweet Sixteen.

If this year had been the UA’s first trip to the Elite Eight in nine years the fan feeling would be more like a celebration of “We’re almost there!” as opposed to “Will we ever get there again?!”

How many people thought Florida’s Billy Donovan had lost his tournament touch after losing in the Elite Eight three straight seasons? Even with his current team making it to Dallas – and with two national championships under his belt – Donovan only has a 4-3 career record in regional finals.

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo was the king of regional finals with a 6-1 record in the Elite Eight entering this tournament and he just lost in that round to a 7-seed.

This single-elimination tournament that we love so much is so very, very tough.

This is why you cut down the nets and celebrate the Pac-12 regular season title. This is why you go all-out to try and win the Pac tournament in Vegas. Sixty-seven teams get their hearts broken in March, and that’s not including all the ones left out on Selection Sunday.

In the early ‘90s Arizona fans rationalized the pain by saying it was better to lose in the first round than miss the tournament altogether. The same logic needs to apply now. Isn’t it better to lose in the Elite Eight than to flame out in the first couple rounds? Getting close might hurt more but it increases your odds of finally breaking through.

Optimistic Wildcats during the early Olson era could hold onto the idea that if you keep making the tournament you’ll eventually make some deep runs and Lute did just that.

If Sean Miller keeps recruiting elite players, continues to earn high seeds and maintains his first-weekend success, the Finals Fours will come. They will. No matter how many missed buzzer-beaters it takes.

Bring on the next chance at heartbreak.

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