SAN JOSE — Life is always pretty fluid at college basketball’s highest levels, and the Arizona Wildcats are no exception.
That’s why, to them, their last Sweet 16 might seem like eons ago. Even if it’s only been two years.
In 2014-15, the Wildcats had two NBA first-rounders (Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson), a soon-to-be surprise NBA player (T.J. McConnell) along with future second-tier pros in Brandon Ashley, Gabe York and Kaleb Tarczewski.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic, the only two current Wildcats who played that season, averaged less than 10 minutes apiece. Jackson-Cartwright was McConnell’s backup while Ristic was firmly behind Tarczewski.
Kadeem Allen, meanwhile, was so unlikely to get playing time behind Johnson, McConnell and York that he opted to take a redshirt season — despite the fact that he was the reigning junior college player of the year.
“It’s a different team,” Ristic said. “There was only Parker and me, and Kadeem wasn’t playing. So this feels a little different, but we have the same aspirations and goals.”
The 2014-15 team had a clear goal, to reach the Final Four after they were edged by Wisconsin in overtime of the 2014 Elite Eight.
All signs pointed toward that as a realistic achievement. The Wildcats lost only three games in the regular season, and two of them were explainable: At UNLV just before Christmas break and at ASU in midseason. In between, however, was a costly one: A 58-56 loss at Oregon State that may have ultimately kept the Wildcats off the No. 1 seed line.
Instead, UA was given a No. 2 seed, and the selection committee looked elsewhere to slip a No. 1 into the West.
They picked Wisconsin.
Two weeks later, the almost inevitable Elite Eight rematch was even worse for UA, which lost 85-78 in a blaze of Sam Dekker 3-point bombs and Frank Kaminsky free throws.
This season, the Wildcats learned to live without Allonzo Trier for 19 games because of his PED-related suspension, going 17-2 until he returned on Jan. 21, and hit a few bumps while integrating him over the following month.
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Along the way, Jackson-Cartwright missed four weeks with a high ankle sprain, and while Allen says he feels good this time knowing he’s “out there playing and contributing to our wins,” he had a price to pay, too: A sprained knee early in the season, heavy minutes during Jackson-Cartwright’s absence and a dislocated finger that cost him two games in February.
Then, just when the Wildcats reached the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, wing Rawle Alkins broke his finger.
It’s been a grind. A successful grind, but a grind nonetheless.
“This feels a lot different,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “I feel we were in total control right until the (2015) Elite Eight. We were really rolling from start to finish other than a couple of games.
“(This season) we’ve worked really hard, tirelessly, and man, this is just paying off in a special way. This year has a lot more meaning. We deserve everything we’re getting right now, but we have a lot of work to do to reach our ultimate goal.”