aari mcdonald basketball.jpg

In this year's NCAA tourney, Arizona Wildcat All-American point guard Aari McDonald firmly cemented her status as a legend in UA lore.

Any local sports fan not in the category of COMPLETELY RABID may not know this, but the University of Arizona is absolutely kickin’ it these days. Oh sure, the football team finished the Pandemic Season in complete shambles; that 70-7 whuppin’ at the hands of Arizona State will be seared into our memories until and unless the Wildcats figure out some way to first let it scar over and then rub some dirt on it so that the scar isn’t quite so noticeable. I’m thinking maybe a five-game winning streak in the Territorial Cup series. That seemed to do the trick back in the 1980s. It’s certainly worth a try in the 2020s.

The men’s basketball program, driven into a ditch by the sullen (and now gone) Sean Miller, isn’t in quite as bad a shape as football, but the program is still facing an official NCAA smack-around and it’s being led by a guy who has never been a head coach before. Plus, players from last year’s team are jumping into the transfer portal like it’s the secret VIP entrance to The Club.

It’s going to take a few years to see if those two programs can return to any semblance of their former relative prominences (football going to bowl games not named for lawn-care products, the basketball team having a realistic shot at reaching the Final Four). But Arizona Athletic Director Dave Heeke believes that he got the best two guys possible for those two jobs. 

In the meantime, however, Arizona athletics are in a relatively golden age. Except for those two aforementioned giant pimples (okay, more like oozing boils) on the cheek of Wilbur Wildcat, the UA hasn’t been this good in this many sports at one time since the Glory Days of the 1990s.

To wit:

• The softball team is ranked seventh in the country and is pretty much guaranteed to host Regionals and (should they win that round) a Super-Regional.

• The baseball team is in first place in the uber-tough Pac-12 and is ranked ninth in the country. They’re just about a lock to host Regionals and have a great shot at getting back to the College World Series.

• The men’s golf team won the Pac-12 Tournament, holding off traditional powerhouses Arizona State and Stanford down the stretch. And then, the Pac-12 named Wildcat Brad Reeves as Men’s Golfer of the Year, while Wildcat Coach Jim Anderson was named the Conference Coach of the Year. The team, currently ranked 16th in the country, will be competing in the NCAA regionals beginning May 17th.

• The women’s golf team is ranked 14th in the nation and is competing in the NCAA Regionals after a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 Tournament.

• The men’s track and field team is ranked eighth in the country and boasts several top throwers and jumpers. Johnnie Blockburger became the first Wildcat ever to run the 400 meters under 45 seconds and he’s only a freshman. He credits his achievement to having to train in a COVID-era mask, which changed his breathing technique.

• The men’s tennis team upset host team Kentucky in the second round of the NCAAs to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history, but what they did earlier in the year is worth shouting about. The Cats beat mega-powerhouses USC and UCLA in a weekend sweep for the ages. Going into this year, Arizona was 2-102 against USC and 1-72 against UCLA.

All of this (along with the national runner-up finish by the UA women’s basketball team) should mark a return to the upper levels of the Learfield Directors Cup standings, a prestigious list that measures the overall strength of NCAA Division I athletic programs. It awards points for where teams finish in national tournaments or the final rankings in national polls. It was started in 1994. North Carolina won the Cup the first year, but Stanford has won it EVERY YEAR SINCE! (That’s crazy.)

There was no Cup awarded last year due to the pandemic and it’s still up in the air whether there will be one this year, although it seems likely as the NCAA has staged national championships in virtually all of its sports.

What many people might not know (or remember) is that Arizona was a perennial Top 10 finisher in the early days of the Directors Cup. In the first eight years of the Cup, the UA had finishes of 6th, 4th, 7th, 6th, 6th, 9th, 8th, and 5th. And that 4th-place finish in 1995 was out of 231 schools. 

However, in the past three years that the Cup was awarded (2017, ’18, and ’19), Arizona finished 42nd, 51st and 41st. 

The troubles surrounding the football and basketball teams may rule the headlines on the sports page, but in terms of overall excellence, it looks like the Cats are back.

 

EXTRA POINTS: Marana and Oro Valley were certainly well represented in the state playoffs in multiple spring sports. Marana Mountain View and Ironwood Ridge both advanced to the second round of the 5A softball playoffs. Mountain View beat Desert Mountain, 6-5 in eight innings, while 14th-seeded Ironwood Ridge upset No. 3 seed Sunrise Mountain, 4-3. No. 15 seed Marana just missed pulling the upset of the tournament, falling to second seed Canyon View, 3-2. Mountain View played at Casteel and Ironwood Ridge played at Millennium in second-round-action yesterday (after our print deadline).

Third-seeded Canyon Del Oro knocked off 14 seed Sahuaro, 11-4 to advance to yesterday’s second round of 4A action against visiting Cactus. In 3A State play, Pusch Ridge lost to Empire, 12-0.

Ironwood Ridge pulled a major upset in the first round of the State Beach Volleyball Tournament, beating 4th-seeded Corona Del Sol, 3-2. In the second round, the Nighthawks fell, 3-2, to Basha. Canyon Del Oro’s beach team lost in the first round to Coconino.

In boys volleyball, Mountain View advanced to the second round with a 3-0 win over Agua Fria. The Mountain Lions played Gilbert last night (after our print deadline). Ironwood Ridge and CDO both lost first-round games.

In baseball, Pusch Ridge and CDO both advanced to the second round with shutout victories. Pusch Ridge beat Chino Valley, 3-0, while CDO demolished visiting Paradise Honors, 20-0. CDO hosted Notre Dame Prep while PR faced Sabino in quarterfinal matchups last night (after our print deadline).

In 5A play, Ironwood Ridge lost to Desert Mountain, 11-3, while Marana lost a heartbreaker, 2-1 to Sunrise Mountain.

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