KELLY: Can UA Athletics make the 20s the decade of ascension?

Arizona must be consistent in the Big 6 and makes gains in the Olympic sports to remain nationally relevant

KELLY: Can UA Athletics make the 20s the decade of ascension?
Women's Soccer ended an eight-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2015 and has made the post-season in four of the last five seasons. (Source: Arizona Athletics)

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Arizona Athletics is losing ground.

A program that was once in the Top 10 nationally has now fallen out of the Top 40.

The good news is the Wildcats made a surge back in 2018-19.

After plummeting to their lowest ever finish in the Learfield IMG Directors’ Cup in the 2017-18 (51st), Arizona made a ten-spot jump in 2018-19 (41st).

The thing you must keep in mind about the Directors’ Cup is programs are awarded points in 37 sports.

Now they can only count 19 sports toward their overall score but the schools that play the most sports have a clear advantage.

Stanford for instance fields teams in 31 of the 37 NCAA Championship sports.

That’s 10 more than Arizona which means 10 more chances for points.

If you break apart the scoring system utilizing just the 21 sports in which the Wildcats compete, Arizona’s positioning jumps slightly from 41st to 35th.

UA leaped above Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Iowa, Maryland and Princeton in the revised standing.

One example of how the change effected Arizona’s position was with the Terrapins. Maryland finished one spot ahead of Arizona in the Directors’ Cup (40th).

Among the points deducted from the Terrapins totals were for their finishes in Lacrosse, again a sport UA does not play. The Maryland women won the national title (100 points) while the men finished 5th (60 points).

The change dropped the Terrapins to 41st in the revised poll, six positions behind Arizona.

But what is behind UA’s overall fall from when they were consistently ranked in the Top 10 (1994-2002) of the annual evaluation of athletic supremacy in Division I.

The simple math is not enough of Arizona’s 21 sports are qualifying for NCAA Championship tournaments.

In UA’s best year 1994-95 when they finished 4th in the nation in the Directors’ Cup, 16 of their then 20 sports qualified for NCAA Championships.

Two seasons ago only 10 sports qualified. This past year that number jumped back to 13.

Here’s a look at UA’s average finishes by the decades:

  • (90s): 6th
  • (00s): 15th
  • (10s): 31st

Let’s look at some historic numbers since the Director’s Cup began 26 years ago (1993-94):

  • UA currently has 19 athletics programs but competes in 21 sports (track is both indoors and outdoors)
  • Only four sports have scored in all 26 years of the Directors’ Cup (Women and Men’s Swimming, Softball and Women’s Golf)
  • Gymnastics has scored in all but one season (2018)
  • Women’s Basketball has qualified for the NCAA Tournament the least amount of times (seven) and has not been in 14 years
  • The team with the next longest drought is Men’s Cross Country (12 years)
  • Only two schools have beaten Arizona in all 26 years of the Directors’ Cup (Stanford and UCLA).
  • Stanford has won the Cup for 25 years in a row. North Carolina won the first Cup.
  • Washington State, Oregon State and Utah are the three Pac-12 schools to never beat Arizona in the Directors’ Cup

So where has UA lost ground over the course of the last ten years.

  • In the nine years UA was Top 10 (’94-'02), women’s and men’s tennis qualified for 13-of-18 NCAA Tournaments with the women producing four Top 10 finishes
    • In the last nine years those two programs have combined for 4-of-18 NCAA Tournaments with zero Top 10 finishes.
  • Same for women’s and men’s cross country. 13-of-18 NCAA Championships in the Top 10 years with six Top 10 finishes.
    • In the 2010s, 5-of-18 NCAA appearances with one Top 10 finish.
    • The women and men have both missed qualifying for the NCAAs as a team the last five years and as mentioned above the men have not qualified since 2007.

The interesting thing in terms of cross country is Arizona has had some great individual performers during this time period.

The most puzzling years were 2011 and 2012 when the men had two of the best runners in the country.

Lawi Lalang won the 2011 individual national championship. The following year both he and Stephen Sambu finished 3rd and 2nd overall.

Yet neither of those years did UA qualifying for the NCAA Championships as a team.

They had Lalang and Sambu but that was it. At the 2012 regional meet where the Top 2 teams earn automatic bids to the NCAAs, the Wildcats finished tenth on the men’s side.

Lalang won the regional and Sambu finished 2nd but after that UA’s remaining three individual placements went 69th, 83rd and 115th.

UA has fallen in men’s cross country as Northern Arizona has catapulted to the top of field with three straight team national championships.

The women almost won the national championship in 2013-14, finishing second but since then, nothing.

UA must figure out a way to score as a team nationally in cross country a sport it has consistently missed the NCAA Championships in on both the women's (5 years) and men's sides (12 years).
UA must figure out a way to score as a team nationally in cross country a sport it has consistently missed the NCAA Championships in on both the women's (5 years) and men's sides (12 years). (Source: Arizona Athletics)

Men’s golf has suffered over the last decade.

  • Men’s golf, under Rick LaRose, scored in all nine years of the Top 10 run with five Top 10 finishes
  • In the 2010s: men’s golf made the NCAA Tournament in six of the 10 years but their best overall finish was just 29th

Even the consistent post-season programs have slipped in the last decade.

  • Softball had an unbelievable run in the first nine years of the Directors’ Cup. Mike Candrea produced nine Top 5 finishes and four national championships
    • Over the last ten years those numbers dipped to two Top 10 finishes and zero national championships
  • Women’s and men’s swimming both finished Top 10 for 17 consecutive years (1998-2014), peaking with their dual national titles in 2007, but neither team has finished Top 10 the last five years.

Baseball to me has been a disappointment. When the Cats are great, they’re great, winning the national title in 2012 and finishing second in 2016.

But UA has missed the NCAA Tournament in five of the last seven years, and in my opinion that should never happen.

Even in the Top 10 era the Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament just one time.

Arizona Baseball doesn’t need to be a World Series regular like Arizona Softball but they need to be in the tournament every year.

Some of the positives. Football went to bowl games seven times in this past decade.

Men’s Basketball, even though Sean Miller’s squads missed the post-season three times, still fared better overall in the NCAA Tournament, averaging a 10th place finish as compared to Lute Olson’s teams in Top 10 era that made the tournament in all nine of those years and averaged an 11th place national finish.

Ultimately though missing the NCAA Tournament three times hurts the athletic program in terms of the Directors’ Cup and the fact that all three of the major men’s sports (football, men’s basketball and baseball) did not play in the post-season this past year torpedoed any chance UA had at finishing in the Top 30.

Arizona finishes 30th if football wins a bowl game, men’s basketball qualifies thru to the Sweet 16 and baseball reaches the regional finals.

This is a feat ironically though that has never happened in the Directors’ Cup era.

The closest was 2015-16 when Rich Rodriguez’s squad won a bowl game (New Mexico Bowl), Jay Johnson baseball team came with in a hair of winning a national championship and Miller’s men’s hoops squad made the NCAA Tournament but lost to Wichita State in the first round.

UA ended up finishing 25th in the Directors’ Cup.

That’s where the descent started. Arizona fell to 42nd in 2017, bottomed out at 51st in 2018 before rebounding to 41st in 2019.

Schools that have begun to pass UA in the last three years:

  • Iowa (Big 10)*
  • Indiana (Big 10)*
  • Northwestern (Big 10)*
  • Purdue (Big 10)*
  • Michigan State (Big 10)*
  • Maryland (Big 10)
  • Illinois (Big 10)
  • Wisconsin (Big 10)
  • Nebraska (Big 10)
  • Mississippi State (SEC)*
  • Mississippi (SEC)*
  • Missouri (SEC)*
  • South Carolina (SEC)*
  • Tennessee (SEC)
  • Colorado (Pac-12)*
  • Syracuse (ACC)*
  • Virginia Tech (ACC)*
  • North Carolina State (ACC)*
  • Wake Forest (ACC)
  • Louisville (ACC)*
  • Texas Tech (Big 12)*
  • Baylor (Big 12)*
  • BYU (Ind)*
  • Princeton (Ivy)*
  • Denver (Summit)*

The 19 programs with stars had never beaten Arizona in the Directors’ Cup before 2015. These are the programs that have pushed UA down the standings.

The most surprising is the last one listed, Denver.

The Pioneers ranked above the Wildcats in back-to-back years (2017 and 2018). Denver is good at one or two sports UA plays (gymnastics and tennis) and very good at several they don’t (men’s hockey, lacrosse and skiing).

Denver is the national champions at Skiing. Really now. I wouldn’t have guessed that (said sarcastically).

When people talk about the economic disparity between the Pac-12 and other Power 5 conferences like the Big 10 and the SEC, this list might be representative of that.

Of the schools that have begun recently to beat Arizona in the Directors’ Cup 14 are from the Big 10 and the SEC and nine of those schools had never beaten UA prior to 2015.

So what’s the outlook for Arizona as we hit the 2020 decade?

The women’s soccer program appears to be solidified in the capable hands of head coach Tony Amato. The Wildcats have made the tournament in four of the last five years.

Women’s basketball is on the cusp of breaking their 14-year NCAA drought. Anything less than that from here on out for Adia Barnes’ squad will be a disappointment.

Men’s tennis ended their nine-year run of missing the NCAA Tournament and Clancy Shield’s squad needs to continue to build on a solid 2018-19 campaign.

Arizona must be strong in what I’ve termed the Big 6 (football, volleyball, women’s and men’s basketball, softball and baseball).

You can’t have years liked 2018-19 when four of your Big 6 programs (football, women’s and men’s basketball and baseball) don’t go to the NCAA post-season.

The cross country and women’s tennis programs, well, they have to flat start showing up on the national radar.

If Arizona gets the same 13 sports from this past year to score again at similar levels in 2019-20 plus gets post-season points from the men’s Big 3 (football, men’s basketball and baseball) and the addition of an NCAA Tournament women’s basketball team. That’s 17 post-season sports and that would easily calculate to a Top 25 finish.

The days of UA being a Top 10 national program are long gone but there’s no reason the Wildcats can’t be consistently Top 25.

Here are my minimum post-season expectations for each program:

  • Volleyball: NCAA 2nd round
  • Football: Bowl game
  • Soccer: NCAA 2nd round
  • Women’s Cross Country: Top 6 West Region
  • Men’s Cross Country: Top 6 West Region
  • Women’s Basketball: NCAA 1st round
  • Men’s Basketball: Sweet 16
  • Gymnastics: NCAA 1st round
  • Women’s Swimming: Top 7
  • Men’s Swimming: Top 7
  • Women’s Indoor Track: Top 50
  • Men’s Indoor Track: Top 50
  • Softball: WCWS 2nd round
  • Baseball: Regional Final
  • Women’s Tennis: NCAA 1st round
  • Men’s Tennis: NCAA 1st round
  • Women’s Golf: Match play quarterfinals
  • Men’s Golf: Top 5 NCAA regionals
  • Beach Volleyball: NCAA qualifier
  • Women’s Outdoor Track: Top 30
  • Men’s Outdoor Track: Top 30

15 Power 5 conference schools that have never beaten UA in the Directors’ Cup:

  • Clemson (ACC)
  • Boston College (ACC)
  • Georgia Tech (ACC)
  • Miami (ACC)
  • Pittsburgh (ACC)
  • Rutgers (Big 10)
  • Iowa State (Big 12)
  • Kansas (Big 12)
  • Kansas State (Big 12)
  • TCU (Big 12)
  • West Virginia (Big 12)
  • Oregon State (Pac-12)
  • Utah (Pac-12)
  • Washington State (Pac-12)
  • Vanderbilt (SEC)

UA’s Directors’ Cup finishes:

  • 1994 6th
  • 1995 4th
  • 1996 7th
  • 1997 6th
  • 1998 6th
  • 1999 T9th
  • 2000 8th
  • 2001 5th
  • 2002 9th
  • 2003 16th
  • 2004 12th
  • 2005 18th
  • 2006 11th
  • 2007 24th
  • 2008 27th
  • 2009 24th
  • 2010 30th
  • 2011 16th
  • 2012 19th
  • 2013 23rd
  • 2014 26th
  • 2015 36th
  • 2016 25th
  • 2017 42nd
  • 2018 51st
  • 2019 41st

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