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When is it most painful for a college hoops team to close up shop? Photo by Wildcat Universe

It has been six weeks since the Arizona Wildcats were eliminated from the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament, falling short of the Final Four by one basket. Are you over it yet?

Me neither.

Is losing in the Elite Eight the most painful March Madness defeat possible?

I went through this exercise eight years ago but so much has happened since then it deserves another look. Lute Olson’s departure, three coaches, 10 NCAA tournament wins and six March losses. Which of those exits stings the worst?

Granted, not all losses in a particular round are created equal. Blowing a big lead will be devastating not matter when it happens (sigh). The same goes for losing as a heavy favorite. Any defeat that evokes the word “choke” belongs in a special category of suffering.

We are, however, focusing on “normal” losses today, when your team played well but lost to a team that played better. When is it easiest to take a straight-forward defeat? Here are the six final rounds of the NCAA tournament ranked in order from the best round to lose in to the worst:

6. Final Four
You got to see your team cut down the nets after the regional final and you ordered the t-shirt. No shame in losing to another Final Four team.

Best UA example: 1994
Blew out 1-seed Missouri to win the West then lost to an Arkansas team that won it all. Great season.

5. Sweet Sixteen
You have two wins which assures a winning tournament record. You got to enjoy a second week of bracket talk and unless you’re a No. 1 or 2 seed you were an underdog when you were sent packing. Just a casual March experience.

Best UA examples: 1996, 2002
Won twice against lower seeds, lost to a higher seed. Hold your head high.

4. Round of 32
You don’t have the embarrassment of a first-round loss but your team didn’t last enough to get your hopes up.

Best UA example: 2006
Surprisingly easy win over Wisconsin in the opening round followed by a hard-fought loss to 1-seed Villanova. Such is life.

3. Round of 64
Here is where ridicule factors into a fan’s displeasure. One and done. You waited the whole year for the Big Dance then threw out your back during the first song.

Best UA examples: 1992, 1993, 1995
Some anti-Arizona fans will still talk about how the Cats “always” lose in the first round because of this stretch.

2. Elite Eight
This wound is fresh. You had a decent tournament run but nothing to show for it. Nobody celebrates the “Road to the Elite Eight.” Elite Eight isn’t even proper alliteration.

Best UA examples: 1998, 2003, 2005, 2011, 2014
Do you feel good about any of these? Maybe 2011 since that team lost to a higher seed and had just beaten 1-seed Duke. But three of the other four teams had been ranked No. 1 during the regular season and 2005 is 2005. There’s a reason this year’s loss is lingering.

But the very worst round to lose in is…

1. Championship Game
You went as far as you could go but someone else gets the trophy. Second place is the first loser. They don’t sell big foam hands with two fingers on them (OK, maybe these guys do).

UA example: 2001
I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me here because they recall the 2001 team fondly (remember the “Four Bobbi” billboard?) but there is an infinite difference between being champion and runner-up.

Think of Butler losing back-to-back title games in 2010 and 2011. There’s a strong possibility the Bulldogs never reach that level again. Opportunities lost forever.

What if Syracuse had lost to Kansas in 2003? Jim Boeheim would have been 0-3 in national championship games and his legacy would have been completely different.

Now imagine a world where Arizona won the 2001 title game. Lute would have become just the second coach to win two championships since the field expanded to 64 (Mike Krzyzewski being the first). He would have had even more recruiting clout and a few years of good health left to chase a third ring and status among the game’s true elite.

Putting it another way, if I could get a do-over on one basketball game in UA history it would be the final game of the 2001 tournament. It’s the only game where a reversed outcome guarantees hanging another championship banner.

The entire purpose of sport is to compete and crown a champion. There is no worse feeling than being close enough to taste it but still going away hungry.

Thirteen years that ’01 loss and Cat fans are still waiting to get back. Progress has certainly been made as both of Sean Miller’s Elite Eight Wildcat teams had enough talent to win it all. Some may call that frustrating but I am encouraged. Program-defining games may soon be on the horizon.

Hopefully we can then start debating the best rounds in which to win.

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