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Arizona isn't blue blood, but it remains one of the top programs in men's college basketball

Arizona hasn't won a national championship since 1997 and last reached a Final Four in 2001.

In 2023, it became the first program in the country to lose to a 15-seed in the first round of the tournament one second Time and his history of heartbreaking defeats in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 – often as a higher seed and favorite – is as detailed as it is well-documented.

Constant failure in the big dance has given ASU trolls ESPN's Matt Berrie And misguided analysts like Kyle Dodd Fodder for essentially declaring that Arizona always underperforms and is nowhere near the program Wildcats fans think it is.

Admittedly, much of their anger is rooted in the fact that their men's basketball program (and, lately, almost every other sport you care about) is either mediocre or just plain bad. Having stronger opinions and being more interested in Arizona basketball than ASU is a good brand for the Sun Devil “believers.”

But just as they say there's a hint of truth in every joke, recent history in particular has given ammunition to those who want to say that Arizona is an overrated blue-blood wannabe.

The fact is that Arizona is not blue blood, at least not at the level of Kansas, Duke, Kentucky or now UConn.

The Cats could also fall behind teams like Michigan State and North Carolina, and some would root for Indiana and UCLA.

All of these programs have won a lot. Games, conference titles, conference tournament championships, preseason tournaments. Check, check, check and check. Most of these programs have won national championships in the last 20 years and all have made it to the Final Four since Arizona's last appearance.

So if you want to say that Arizona isn't blue blooded, that's fine. There's no defined standard, but it's hard to argue against what the Cats didn't do, especially compared to those whose banners were hung at a time when the vast majority of their student body was still alive.

But if you take that position and go beyond that and say that Arizona is not one of the most important programs in the country, then you are sorely mistaken.

Loud Olsons His arrival in 1983 led to Arizona's rise as a program, a development that continued even without him on the sidelines. Some programs struggled in the years after losing a Hall of Fame coach, but Arizona survived the transition from Olson to Kevin O'Neill And Russ Pennell before you find stability with Sean Miller. When things got a little bumpy under Miller, the ship was stabilized Tommy Lloyd.

Despite all of this, Arizona has continued to put quality teams on the field. Some were better than others, but the point is that the program endured and persevered.

Some might even argue that it has turned out well. The eighth-highest win percentage of all time is nothing to sneeze at, nor is the number of preseason tournaments, conference tournaments and big games won. Arizona is also a top 10 first-round NBA draft pick. Again, there are a handful of schools that do better there, like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and UCLA, but there are far more programs in Arizona's rearview mirror than are visible through the windshield.

Draft picks are nice, but Final Fours are nicer. Winning games is great, but winning the last one is the goal.

In this regard, Arizona has consistently fallen behind. It's been disheartening for fans, gratifying for haters, and nationally for those paying attention, just the way things are going.

Not specifically for Arizona, but for most of college basketball.

That's why, even after another early exit and the likely departure of most – if not all – of the team's starting lineup, Arizona was all somewhere in the top 20 in the way-too-early rankings. That's also why top-ranked recruits consider the Wildcats and elite transfers, like Trey Townsend and like boys Caleb Love, Keshad Johnson And Jaden Bradley decided last year to make their way to the Old Pueblo.

Yes, the program's NIL support helps. But it's nowhere near the most robust in sports (we're looking at you, Kansas and Indiana), so there must be more to it. Always being on TV used to be an attraction, but nowadays it is possible to watch a team play.

Big game scheduling probably plays a role too, but that's more of a circular argument. Arizona is able to schedule quality non-conference games because it is a key opponent and finds ranked opponents in tournaments, neutral site games or home-versus-home series. The Wildcats are a big draw and an entertaining opponent due to the fact that they are a big program.

Most importantly, the fact that so many people have an opinion about Arizona shows how important they are to college basketball. Clearly her fans are excited about the program, but even her haters — like those who supposedly support ASU —have an emotional reaction to everything Arizona does on the field.

None of them will (or should, at any rate) care more about Arizona than the true Arizona fans who have the privilege of rooting for one of the best programs in the country but have suffered the pain of watching them came up short in the tournament. Few fan bases can truly understand what that's like, even though most who follow the best teams in the country have seen their programs flounder and fail to compete.

After all, teams with a maximum of eight players have made it to the Final Four in each of the last four years, and the last time the final weekend was filled with only top seeds was in 2008. Put simply, this means that surprises happen every year. This means that every year there are fan bases that imagined the nets being cut down, but instead had to watch their team slowly walk off the field with their heads down.

Arizona has done it more times than any of us would like, which is why it is not considered one of the sport's best, nor should it be viewed as such. But considering what the program has accomplished and how it is perceived, Arizona is at the next tier down and has a clear path to the top.

Anna Harden

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