It is hard for me to stay away from sports themed articles; especially when we’re in the thick of the make-or-break portion of the college basketball schedule (at least that is when I wrote this article). March Madness is only a few weeks away, and it really starts before the NCAA tourney’s first tip. February is the month where teams fall from glory or get fine-tuned. For many programs, and especially their fans, February and early March are fingernail biting times. It’s always nice to know your team is “in,” but for many of us, our team is living (or dying) on every game down the stretch. Illinois is. Again…
But college basketball is a long season. It starts in November and, for the most part, the non-conference schedule for the biggest teams is stuffed full of schools akin to ‘sisters of the poor.’ This is done to ‘pad’ their records and to get the team into prime playing form (hopefully). But if you schedule wisely, you get some tough competition in there too; and you need it for the conference portion of the schedule, and you need it for your resume come Selection Sunday should you be on the dreaded “Bubble.”
As TV exposure has increased, so too have the number of tournaments played in the early season. This gets the teams good exposure on television and allows their fans to travel to warm, if not exotic, locales. It also gives your squad the chance to play high-intensity ball for three days and thus to get into March form a little early. Probably the most prestigious of tourneys is the Maui Invitational (I assume you were wondering how I was going to link Hawaii to the U of A?). And while the Maui Invitational isn’t played on Oahu, home to the University of Hawaii (duh), it’s the same state. C’mon, give me a break! Making these links doesn’t always have to be so direct. Well, this past year, 2014, the Wildcats won the Maui tourney, so that is our link for this month’s Small World.
The U of A basketball program is what it is today because of former coach, Lute Olson. Olson had significant success at his first two head coaching stops, Long Beach State and the University of Iowa. When he left Iowa in 1983 after a Sweet 16 appearance, many were shocked that he would go to Arizona, widely considered to be one of the worst programs in the West (and maybe the country). But if you think about it, it isn’t too odd. Where do folks from the Midwest go to retire? Arizona or Florida. Maybe the Gators, ‘Canes and ‘Noles had coaches they were happy with at the time. But Lute didn’t retire, in fact he built a powerhouse over the next 23 seasons. My favorite memory of Olson’s squad was the Wildcats losing to Illinois in the 2005 Elite Eight. Sorry ‘Cats fans, had to throw that one in there!
But the University of Arizona is not just roundball and warm desert air. It is also a top-notch research university about two hours southeast of Phoenix. Founded in 1885, it was the first university in the state. Several of its undergraduate programs are ranked in the top ten nationally, including geology (#1), pharmacy (#9) and partying (#5). Oh, wait, that last one isn’t a major, is it? Well, if you do it right, it should at least be a minor! As my dad always told me; “Son, you can always retake a class, but you can never relive a party.” Thanks, dad. But I digress.
Arizona is categorized as a top-tier research university as designated by the Carnegie Foundation and the Association of American Universities. Both institutions rate and classify universities based on their research productivity and funding awards. One of the biggest research/funding collaborations the U of A has is with NASA. No other university receives more grants from NASA, and Arizona was chosen to lead the “Mission to Mars” program in the last decade.
And as a top party school (as deemed by the prestigious Playboy magazine), the campus is obviously conducive to a strong social element. The Greek system is large, representing about 10% of the student body, and Tucson itself is a hotbed for Spring Break activity. That’s convenient for the poor college students on campus, oftentimes the party is brought to them! But the social element extends to more than just beer bongs and keg stands. There are over 500 philanthropic organizations on campus, allowing for the student body to learn more about the world, and themselves, through service. Sounds like a great pace to spend 4 years. Or 5, or 6….