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UA FB & BB: Starring roles reversed

Starring roles reversed for UA football, hoops

Arizona's Nick Johnson leads the team in steals and points per game.

The dichotomy that exists in University of Arizona athletics will be on full display Saturday, when both the football and basketball teams will compete in two of their most important contests of the year, ones which will play a large part in defining their respective seasons, victorious or not.

Rich Rodriguez has the UA football team winning again, at 7-5, and back in a bowl in his first season, led by one of the best players in the nation in running back Ka’Deem Carey. Tucson’s native son will have a chance to finish the year as college football’s top yardage-gainer on Saturday in Albuquerque, and against a poor Nevada rush defense, a real chance to cross the 2,000 yard mark, loudly proclaiming his Heisman Trophy candidacy for 2013.

Meanwhile, Sean Miller’s hardwood squad is unbeaten through seven games thus far, ranked No. 8 in the country, and will face almost certainly its biggest test of the regular season when it hosts No. 5, 7-0 Florida at 8:00 p.m., a few hours after the conclusion of the New Mexico Bowl.

It promises to be a thrilling, whirlwind dozen hours for the University of Arizona and its supporters, as it’s one of those rare occasions when the school’s two most popular programs will suit up on the same day.

And yet, despite both teams having the spotlight focused squarely on them this weekend, it’s obvious the relationship between the two has quickly returned to what it was for a quarter century – hoops has the hype, while football is a veritable afterthought.

But it wasn’t long ago that the roles were reversed.

In 2008, the UA men’s basketball team, led by interim Lute-replacement Kevin O’Neill, limped to a 19-15 record and an NCAA Tournament first-round exit at the hands of West Virginia. Things continued to regress into the unknown that fall, when Lute Olson’s sudden return-then-retirement left the coveted program without a permanent figurehead for an additional season.

Russ Pennell took over the reigns that fall, and though he later led the Cats on a remarkable run to the Sweet 16, Arizona basketball was knee-deep in a state of flux, when its future and reputation as one of the nation’s elite programs appeared to be treading water, edging toward a potential whirlpool of a downward spiral.
Concurrently, Mike Stoops’ Wildcat football team was busy wrapping up its best season in a decade, and looked to be on a continuous upswing as it headed to Sin City to take on BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, on the night of Dec. 20.

Arizona quarterback Matt Scott will lead the Wildcats for the final time in his career Saturday morning in Alburquerque, N.M.

Earlier that day, a fortuitous bit of scheduling had Pennell’s team playing just down the road, in the Thomas and Mack Center, against host UNLV. The Wildcats were humbled by the Rebels that afternoon, 79-64, yet those of us unfortunate enough to witness the poor showing wasted no time hanging our heads, as the day’s main event was still yet to take place, just a short drive and a few hours after.

When the Cats emerged victorious, 31-21 on that frigid night, spirits were naturally high, and the general disposition among the Arizona faithful was that the timing couldn’t be better – just when the quarter-century run of hoops glory looked to be ending, the team that was almost always second fiddle was finally emerging to take its place.

Four years later, however, the roles once again seem reversed, at least to a degree.

The Gildan New Mexico Bowl is the first game of the bowl season, and pits what wound up the Pac-12’s eighth-place team against the fifth-place finisher from the Mountain West.

That reality alone shows the game doesn’t exactly reek of significance.

Conversely, 450 miles away, the McKale Center will host what is without question the biggest college basketball game of the weekend.

Which one matters more to most Arizona fans? Look no further than the numbers.
While all 14,538 seats at the UA-Florida game are sold out, Arizona athletics director Greg Byrne was still pitching New Mexico bowl game tickets in his weekly ‘Wildcat Wednesday’ newsletter this week. Each school was allotted 5,000 tickets for the bowl, yet the repeated plea from the A.D. has been that even if UA fans choose not to attend, they should purchase tickets in support of the program.
Common sense says there will be an underwhelming number of cardinal and navy-clad folks on hand in University Stadium on Saturday, and the UA will have to pony up the difference for the unsold allotment.

Sure, the game doesn’t carry much clout, and the temperature at kickoff is expected to be in the mid-30s, but when a school has to shell out for a postseason event that features a legend-in-the-making kind of player, and is a short flight or day’s drive away, it says a lot about where the hearts of most of the Wildcat congregation lie.

The difference between 2008 and now, of course, is that the programs don’t appear to be headed in different directions. Rodriguez arrived and turned a program that fell on its face a year ago into one that will double its 2011 win total with a victory over Nevada. Couple that with the understanding that most of the Wildcats’ key contributors will return next fall, the defense can [seemingly] only get better, and the positive strides made this season indicate that momentum is building, and the outlook for Arizona football should only be one of optimism.

The school’s premiere program shares that same aura at the moment, though Miller’s squad remains rooted in much more success, and subsequent mystique. They’ll most likely enjoy that same favoritism from UA fans for years to come, but Carey and the Wildcat gridiron gang will audition to co-star on center stage Saturday afternoon, no matter how few brave the cold to see them play.

Perhaps a year from now, they’ll be preparing for a bigger game, in which tickets are at a premium, instead of a burden. And if Rodriguez continues to build like he has in a dozen short months, it’s hard to imagine that won’t become a reality.

The tables have turned for Arizona’s two prominent programs over the past four years, but unlike that trip to Vegas, when the teams returned home via two very different roads, this year’s Big Day will see the Cats swing their tails in two cities, setting up an intriguing 2013 and beyond.

Football (Gildan New Mexico Bowl) – Arizona 47, Nevada 39.

Basketball – No. 8 Arizona 79, No. 5 Florida 76.

It might not be long until both programs are co-stars.

Follow me on Twitter @EricWKay

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