BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Through all the turmoil, the off-the-court distractions, injuries and suspensions, Arizona had been able to maintain its focus on the court. Facing the relentless pressure of Buffalo's fast and furious guards, the Wildcats wilted.
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Through all the turmoil, the off-the-court distractions, injuries and suspensions, Arizona had been able to maintain its focus on the court.
Facing the relentless pressure of Buffalo's fast and furious guards, the Wildcats wilted.
Sean Miller's best bid to reach the Final Four was gone in a 40-minute flurry of Buffalo baskets and Arizona misses Thursday night.
When it was over, the emotional and physical toll of arguably the most difficult season in program history hit like a sledgehammer.
"It really doesn't seem real right now," Arizona point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said following the Wildcats' 89-68 loss to Buffalo in the South Region.
It wasn't supposed to end like this.
Miller had what appeared to be his best shot at finally reaching the Final Four.
Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins tested the NBA waters, decided to return. Serbian big man Dusan Ristic and Jackson-Cartwright were back for their senior seasons. Bahamian big man Deandre Ayton headed another marquee recruiting class in Tucson.
The Final-Four-or-bust bid almost busted before it got started.
In September, a federal investigation into shady recruiting practices led to the arrest of 10 people, accused of using bribes and kickbacks to influence star players' choices of schools, shoe sponsors and agents. Among them: Arizona assistant coach Emanuel Richardson, casting a dark shadow over the program before the season even began.
The Wildcats also took a big preseason blow when Alkins broke his right foot during workouts. He missed the first nine games, contributing to Arizona's three losses in three days in the Bahamas. The 0-for trip dropped the Wildcats from No. 2 to all the way out of the AP Top 25, a first since Louisville in 1986-87.
Arizona put the outside distractions aside, got Alkins back in the lineup and started winning games.
The Wildcats were in position to close out their fifth Pac-12 regular-season title in six years when more problems arose the penultimate week of the season.
Trier, Arizona's leading scorer at the time, tested positive for the same banned substance that cost him 19 games the season before. He missed two games before being cleared.
Miller also found himself in the recruiting scandal crosshairs right before the final week of the season, when an ESPN report alleged he was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to lure Ayton to the school.
Miller missed a game and three practices before making a strongly worded denial of the report. The university stood behind Miller and he closed out the season as coach.
Arizona went on to become the second team in conference history to sweep the regular-season and tournament titles in consecutive seasons, earning the Wildcats a No. 4 seed.
The seeding meant little to the Buffalo Bulls, who were not intimidated by the bigger Wildcats, running them out of the gym with a slew of 3-pointers and layups.
"It wasn't a lack of effort, certainly wasn't a lack of wanting to advance," Miller said. "We got beat. And we got beat by a good team. A well-coached team. A team that was tough."
The future, for one of the few times under Miller, is uncertain.
Ayton, Trier and Alkins are all leaving early for the NBA. Ristic and Jackson-Cartwright are out of eligibility. Emmanuel Akot, Brandon Randolph and Ira Lee said after Thursday's game that they expect to be back, but the latest recruiting class dissipated due to the recruiting scandal.
Miller still could work his recruiting magic to sign a solid class, but there's far more doubt about the program than in years past.
"I'm taking things a day at a time," he said. "Obviously, this is a tough day and we have to move forward. My thoughts are more with our players right now. It's not easy to win the Pac-12 Tournament in the regular season, overcome a lot, get here to the tournament finally and not play well and get beat like we got beat, but that's part of sports."
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