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The age-old question is asked, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?” A fourth-grade teacher could probably burn an entire morning by posing that question and having his/her class debate it ad infinitum. (Scientifically, it would certainly create vibrations in the air—what the average person would call “sound waves”—but technically, sound is that which is created when said vibrations strike an ear drum, sending codes along a neural pathway to the brain, which then decodes and perceives it as sound. Yeah, fourth-graders could dance around that for hours.)

Staying with the philosophical, if the University of Arizona men’s basketball team had a season with zero fans in attendance at McKale and absolutely no chance of competing in postseason play, would Wildcat fans still care, even a little bit? The answer to that, it appears, depends on the definition of “even a little bit.”

Most of us look back with dread and emptiness at those months in 2020 when there were no sports. ESPN was a barren wasteland with nothing but a 100-part documentary reminding us just how unlikable Michael Jordan was. We told ourselves that when sports came back, we would treat them with the respect and near-reverence they deserved. 

We missed sports so much that we even watched baseball when it came back. We had a good time with the NBA bubble playoffs (although it would have been more fun if the big underdogs from Miami could have won the title) and then we watched the NFL start off a virus-plagued season that none of us really expected them to be able to complete. But the possible return of UA basketball—both women’s and men’s—is what got the juices flowing. 

The women’s program has attracted a loyal following with its furious style of play and, quite simply, its winning. The best thing is that the women players sick around for multiple years, allowing the fans to get to know them as people and watch them progress as athletes. There’s a newness and an excitement to the women’s program. (Like Outkast said, they’re “so fresh and so clean, clean…”)

The men’s program has been part of who we are as Southern Arizonans for decades. It has been a source of pride, shared exhilaration, and near-annual frustration for decades. For a long time, it was like what the women’s program is now. Its best players stuck around and had careers, rather than brief appearances. Just think about it: Sean Elliott, Damon Stoudamire, Luke Walton, Kenny Lofton and Jason Terry were all four-year Wildcats.    

Since Sean Miller took over as coach after the messy exit of Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, Wildcat fans have watched an endless procession of underwhelming one-and-dones, players who, by rule, couldn’t go directly into the NBA, so, like transients, they stop by Tucson for a few months before moving on. The results have not been impressive. I won’t go through the entire list, but last year, there were three of these can’t-miss guys all on one team and they managed to lead Arizona to a fifth-place finish in the Pac-12, finishing behind Arizona State, among others.

This year was going to be different. Perhaps because of NCAA probation hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles or perhaps having been burned too many times by the one-and-dones, Miller had recruited differently. He brought in a bunch of foreign players and some American players who weren’t McDonald’s All-Americans. These were guys who would stick around for a while, perhaps even long enough to enjoy the entire college experience. They would require—and benefit from—solid coaching. And they would be welcomed and embraced by the legendary McKale crowd.

For more than 30 years, McKale has hosted the biggest and most-intimidating crowds in the Pac-10, then -12. In the past few years, however, it hasn’t been an automatic sellout, let along ticket-scalpers’ heaven. But it’s still loud and raucous and makes for a serious home court advantage.

But this year, everything is different. The pandemic has closed arenas, caused last-second cancellations and seriously unbalanced schedules, and will have a serious impact on the upcoming NCAA Tournament (fingers crossed).

Arizona won’t be in the tournament, having given itself a one-year ban, a self-imposed slap on the wrist in hopes that the NCAA doesn’t drop an entire building on the program. With no home crowds, a roster that you need a scorecard to navigate, no chance for postseason play, and spotty TV coverage, this may well go down as a lost season for the Wildcats. And that’s a shame because this year’s young, unpredictable team is actually kinda fun to watch, especially compared to last season’s fingernails-on-a-chalkboard squad.

Maybe next year.

EXTRA POINTS: The Arizona men pulled off an incredible win last week at Arizona State. After leading most of the game, the Cats fell behind by five points with a minute left. They hit a three and a couple free throws to tie the game, then, after blocking an ASU shot at one end of the floor, got off a last-second shot that was partially blocked but then tipped in by freshman Azuolis Tubelis with 0.4 seconds left…With the loss, ASU, which had been in the preseason Top 20 nationally, fell to 4-7 overall and 1-4 in Pac-12 play…The Arizona women are all alone in second place in the Pac-12 and are currently ranked 10th in the country…After the reversal by the AIA, high-school teams have started their basketball seasons. The Amphi schools (Ironwood Ridge, Amphi, and CDO) just started practice last week and hope to start playing games next week.

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