On Thursday, the Arizona Wildcats will take part in the NCAA Tournament for the 34th time as a program, and the sixth under current head coach Sean Miller.
Many of the program’s tournament runs have featured compelling matchups and memorable moments, which is about right when you realize the Wildcats have been to 18 Sweet 16s, 11 Elite 8s and four Final Fours, with a national championship coming in 1997 and a runner-up finish four years later.
For most of Miller’s tenure in Tucson, the Wildcats have been among the country’s very best programs. In the past Arizona has been seeded fifth (2011), sixth (2013), first (2014), second (2015) and seventh (2016), and this year they are once again a 2-seed.
Will this be the season the Wildcats finally end their Final Four drought? Are they destined to cut down the nets in Glendale?7
Maybe, and if it’s going to happen a handful of players will have to step up big over the course of the next few weeks.
It’s happened before with Miller at the helm, and with that in mind here are five of the most impressive individual performances for the Wildcats under their current head coach.
2011: Derrick Williams vs. Duke in the Sweet 16
Williams followed a good freshman season with an epic sophomore campaign, and the Wildcats rode their star forward to a pair of tournament victories as he scored 39 points over the first two games, including a game-winning and-one against Texas in the round of 32. But while those games were good, what Williams did against Duke was legendary.
The forward kept Arizona in the game through the first 20 minutes, scoring 25 points with an array of jumpers, lay-ins, put-backs, dunks and threes. He scored only seven points in the second half — giving him a career-high of 32 for the game — but the Cats did not need much more from him as they poured it on the Blue Devils to the tune of a 55-33 drubbing over the final 20 minutes of the game. Along with his points, Williams finished with 13 rebounds, two steals, two assists and one block in Arizona’s 93-77 victory.
Williams’ signature play in the effort game just more than halfway through the second half, when he received a pass at the top of the key, got a step on his defender and soared through the air for a powerful dunk. If you want to watch that (and really, what Arizona fan wouldn’t?), it can be found at the 3:20 mark in the above video.
2011: Jordin Mayes vs. Texas, Round of 32
Before Williams ever had a chance to stomp on Duke’s soul, they had to get past four-seed Texas in the Round of 32. Yes, Williams led the Wildcats with 17 points, and Solomon Hill contributed 16, but that was expected. What was not anticipated was Jordin Mayes’ contributions off the bench.
The freshman who had scored in double figures just once all season — on Dec. 1 against Rice — scored 16 points against the Longhorns, making all four of this three-point attempts and 6-of-7 shots, overall. He added two assists and two steals to his stat line, and gave Arizona a valuable third scorer in a game the Wildcats won by just one point, 70-69.
2013: Mark Lyons vs. Ohio State, Sweet 16
One of the more polarizing players to ever suit up for the Wildcats (which is impressive considering he was in Tucson for just one season), Lyons was a combo guard who led the team in scoring while running the point. He helped Arizona to a 6-seed, and in the first round they knocked off Belmont before taking down 14-seed Harvard two days later.
Lyons scored 27 points on 12-of-17 shooting against the Crimson, but while that was his most efficient and highest scoring game of the tournament, the fact that it was against lesser competition bumps it down a notch here. Where Lyons really stepped up was the following game, in a Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State.
The guard did all he could to keep the Wildcats in the game against the second-seeded Buckeyes, and his acrobatic layup while being fouled with 21.8 seconds remaining allowed him to tie the score with an incredibly clutch free throw.
Of course, a mixup on defense led to LaQuinton Ross being left open for a three, which he made to send the Buckeyes to the Elite 8 and the Wildcats home. Afterwards Lyons, who scored 23 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field and was 9-of-10 from the free throw line, said he forced the issue too much in the second half. That may be so, but the guard was one of just two Arizona players — Solomon Hill being the other — to reach double figures in points in the game.
2014: Aaron Gordon vs. Gonzaga, Round of 32
The Wildcats were the top seed in the West in 2014, and while most expected them to reach the tournament’s second weekend, there were some who felt the Gnozaga Bulldogs would provide a stiff test for Sean Miller’s squad.
Arizona jumped out to an early lead and took a 47-34 advantage into the break, with their size, shooting and athleticism proving to be too much for the slower Bulldogs. Five Wildcats scored in double figures, Gordon’s 18 being time for the team and game-high.
“What we did today was push the tempo,” Gordon said after the game, which the Wildcats won 84-61. “We noticed they weren’t getting back as well as they should and we just kept that going throughout the game.”
Along with the points, however, Gordon contributed six rebounds, six assists and four steals — as well as some vicious dunks that surely helped set and maintain the tone of the matchup.
2015: T.J. McConnell vs. Ohio State, Sweet 16
Two years prior, Arizona guard T.J. McConnell could only watch as his teammates fell to the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16. A transfer from Duqesne, McConnell was forced to sit out that season due to NCAA eligibility rules.
When McConnell finally did get a crack at Ohio State, however, he did not disappoint, scoring 19 points while dishing out six assists and grabbing five rebounds. He committed just one turnover.
Led by the senior, the Wildcats took a one-point edge into halftime and then poured it on over the final 20 minutes, knocking off Ohio State by a score of 73-58.
In the game, McConnell and his teammates got the better of star Buckeyes freshman D’Angelo Russell, who went on to be the second overall pick in the NBA Draft but was held to just nine points on 3-of-19 shooting by Arizona.
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