Arizona's NCAA tourney streak ends with little fanfare

A great streak held together with paper clips and chewing gum the past few years finally ended on Thursday amid little fanfare at the hands of an opponent fighting its own battle with mediocrity.

UCLA ousted Arizona, 75-69, in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals, halting the nation's longest string of consecutive NCAA tournament berths at 25. It was a sudden and ignominous finish for a Wildcats team that seemed to be on an uptick entering the conference tournament with three consecutive victories.

"That's all everybody knows around here - the tournament streak, the tournament streak," freshman guard Lamont Jones told the New York Times. "Whether you play one round or you make it to the championship or the Elite Eight. That's just the history of the program. Everybody expects that."

If the most optimistic segment of the Arizona fan base held out hope before the season that the Wildcats might be able to eke out an at-large bid, the realists knew the end was surely near. Having interim coaches the past two years short-circuited recruiting, leaving Arizona unable to replace Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill and hard-pressed to stay relevant even in a threadbare Pac-10.

What should be encouraging for the Wildcats is that under first-year coach Sean Miller, the future looks bright. They have a coach who's well-respected and committed for the long term. They have the Pac-10's best freshman class, highlighted by all-conference forward Derrick Williams. And they have maybe the West Coast's best shooting guard prospect set to join the program next season.

At 17-16, the Wildcats also could be a candidate to play in the NIT. No, that's not the same as the NCAA tournament, but for a young team building for the future, it could be a positive.

Plus, the Wildcats will be in good company. Say hello to UConn and North Carolina.

"The reason I came to Arizona is to rebuild our program," Miller told reporters after the game. "We have a possibility to get a NIT bid. It's a terrific tournament. I feel very, very good about what we've been able to accomplish."

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