This past year was an interesting one in the Arizona sports landscape.
Some teams exceeded expectations, riding some outstanding individual performances to a better year than anyone could have anticipated.
Others disappointed, falling short of goals that at the time did not seem to be unreasonable.
Through it all, there were plenty of plays and moments that stood out, and in this space we’ll present photos that we believe define 2015 in Arizona sports.
In 2013-14, Goran Dragic averaged 20.3 points, 5.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game en route to winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and leading the Suns to a surprising 48-win season. In Feb. 2015, he complained about his role and voiced a lack of trust in the Suns’ front office, and on Feb. 19 he was traded to the Miami Heat.
When the NBA’s free agency period began on July 1, few believed the Suns had a chance to lure one of the top players on the market to the Valley. Then the team signed Tyson Chandler and was granted audience with LaMarcus Aldridge, and the race to bring the four-time All-Star to Phoenix was on. Unfortunately, while the Suns made a strong impression on the power forward and very much intrigued him, on July 4 he chose to sign with the San Antonio Spurs.
In order to create enough salary cap space to make a legitimate run at Aldridge, the Suns traded forward Marcus Morris to the Detroit Pistons. Not surprisingly, this upset Markieff Morris — Marcus’ twin brother — to the point where the former demanded to be traded away from Phoenix while saying some unkind things about the organization. The demand was not met, however, and Morris reported to Suns training camp on time and by all accounts has been a good teammate. What he has not been is a good player, as he has been unable to get off the bench in many games and earned himself a two-game suspension for throwing a towel in the direction of head coach Jeff Hornacek.
The Cardinals’ 2014 ended in disappointment as quarterback Carson Palmer was forced to watch the team’s brief playoff run due to a torn ACL. The veteran vowed to work hard to come back in 2015, though to be fair, no one was quite sure what to expect from him given his age and the fact that this was his second injury of that kind. In 2015, Palmer has been nothing short of amazing. The quarterback has placed himself in the league MVP conversation while leading the Cardinals to one of the best records in the league. As long as he is under center, Arizona has a real chance of reaching Super Bowl 50.
The return to health of Palmer has had a wonderful side effect on Larry Fitzgerald, who has turned in a career year after many believed his best days were behind him. The veteran is not only an emotional leader for the team, but is also its leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. While Palmer is not lacking options, it’s clear when a big catch is needed, No. 3 looks to No. 11 — and rarely ends up disappointed.
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2015 is the Year of the Sheep. In Arizona, it’s the Year of the Badger. The Honey Badger, that is. The Cardinals’ third-year safety has been a terror for opposing offenses, making plays in the backfield as well as in the secondary. A strong candidate to be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, Tyrann Mathieu has established himself as one of the league’s most dynamic defenders as well as a face of the Cardinals’ franchise. Unfortunately, his season was cut short due to a torn ACL suffered when he was, you guessed it, making an interception.
Raise your hand if you thought the Diamondbacks would sign Zack Greinke. Now, put your hand down because you’re a liar. The most stunning move of the offseason saw one of the game’s top pitchers sign a six-year, $206 million contract with the D-backs. In the process, Arizona gained the true ace it had so desperately sought, and at the same time pried a great player from the division rival L.A. Dodgers.
While no one was truly expecting the Coyotes to be really good in the 2014-15 campaign, it’s likely no one really expected them to be as bad as they were, either. Yet, a rough start followed by injuries and trades led them to a 24-50-8 season, with their 56 points being the second-lowest total in the NHL. There was some buzz that maybe their poor season would yield one of the draft’s top two prospects, Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, but Arizona fell to the third spot in the lottery and missed out on them, too.
Tell someone you are excited about the Arizona Coyotes and they may ask you why. Odds are, your answer will include at least one of either Max Domi or Anthony Duclair. The Coyotes’ rookies have burst onto the scene, providing plenty of offense along with some exciting play. And you know what the best part is? They are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exciting prospects in the organization, with the likes of Dylan Strome, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak, Henrik Samuelsson and Nick Merkley working their way through the system.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The 2014-15 season did not go particularly well for the Sun Devils, though on Feb. 7 they knocked off the sixth-ranked Wildcats 81-78 at Wells Fargo Arena. It was the second consecutive season the Devils beat the Wildcats in Tempe, and it provided a nice moment in what was an otherwise mostly forgettable season.
When Ray Anderson decided to dismiss basketball coach Herb Sendek, the program’s leader for the last eight seasons, many wondered what kind of coach he would be able to bring to Tempe. The search seemed to take a while and many names were floated around, but ultimately he landed on Buffalo coach and former Duke great Bobby Hurley. While Hurley has not been around long enough to truly know what kind of impact he will have on the program, early returns in recruiting and on the floor are very, very promising.
The ASU football team entered the 2015 season with high aspirations, with some picking them to be one of the NCAA’s four playoff teams. A season-opening loss to Texas A&M was followed up by sluggish performances in wins over Cal Poly and New Mexico, and once the Devils dropped four of their first six conference games, all of their big goals became unattainable.
While the Sun Devils’ season did not go as planned, the players and fans got to celebrate the return of the Territorial Cup to Tempe when ASU defeated Arizona 52-37 in Tempe. Graham and his team has won the rivalry game three of the last four seasons.
University of Arizona Wildcats
Though Arizona had been one of the Pac-12’s most dominant programs over the last decade or so, the Wildcats had not won the Pac-12 Tournament since 2002. That changed in 2015, as Sean Miller’s team beat California, UCLA and Oregon en route to the title. The championship run in Vegas concluded an outstanding pre-NCAA Tournament slate that saw the Wildcats win 31 games.
Losing is never fun. Losing to the same team for the second consecutive season in the Elite 8 is, well, we can only imagine. The Cats’ NCAA Tournament run and pursuit of a Final Four berth was squashed by the Wisconsin Badgers once again, leaving T.J. McConnell, Sean Miller, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Co. on the doorstep of a truly great season.
Scooby Wright had a phenomenal 2014, earning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award while being a unanimous All-American. He claimed the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Rotary Lombardi Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Jack Lambert Award and finished ninth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. His presence was a key reason for why some felt the Arizona Wildcats could defend their Pac-12 South title. Then, he was no longer there. Wright suffered a knee injury in the team’s opener against UTSA and then, though he returned a few weeks later for the Pac-12 opener against UCLA, was lost for the rest of the regular season with a foot ailment. Wright was easily the most notable player the Wildcats lost to injury in 2015, though quarterback Anu Solomon, running back Nick Wilson and many others missed time, too. No one will know for sure how the team would have fared if not for the rash of injuries, but one can assume they would have won at least a couple more games.
For a few days at least it appeared as though Arizona’s 52-37 loss to ASU in the Territorial Cup might very well be Rich Rodriguez’s last game on the Arizona sideline. A rumored candidate for a handful of jobs, he interviewed with South Carolina and had many pundits believing he would bolt Tucson for the SEC job. However, the fourth-year coach decided it was not yet time to leave the Old Pueblo, returning to the team he has coached the last four seasons.