Tucson's economy still hasn't recovered to the point where you can go a mile without seeing at least one empty storefront on the drive home from work. But at least the roadside T-shirt industry was booming this week.
All those hot dog carts that frequent vacant lots have had to make room for the fly-by-night vendors selling knockoffs of the many different kinds of Arizona basketball T-shirts available now that the Wildcats have again reached the Sweet 16.
Arizona, which spent eight weeks at No. 1 and has been a top-five team almost the entire season, is one good weekend away from reaching its first Final Four since 2001.
This town was already full of ridiculously passionate UA fans, but advancing to the Sweet 16 brings out the next tier of fandom, which comes in two forms: the late-to-the-party cheer squad and the diehard supporters whose steadfast support has finally paid dividends.
They're both adorable and unnerving at the same time, but it's something we grow used to around this time of year. Like the weeds that infest our yards after the monsoon, they're unavoidable.
It's been a wild and crazy few days bridging the gap between Arizona's 84-61 romp over Gonzaga and Thursday night's tussle with San Diego State.
It's been hard to go anywhere without hearing or seeing something related to "our Cats," with longtime fans becoming more confident in their unsolicited opinions that THIS IS THE YEAR, and people that you've never before heard mention anything Wildcat-related suddenly sporting red-and-blue nail polish and plastering UA bumper stickers on their vehicles.
Bully for all of you. For once I'm serious.
It's a great thing for this community to have something to rally around, something to distract us from whatever might be going on in our lives that's been crummy. It's also great to have the overbearing and all-encompassing coverage of UA hoops justified for once.
Go ahead and be fans, go all out and go wild and crazy. Lord knows you'll be seeing plenty of wall-to-wall coverage on local TV, so make sure to have your wits about you when you're interviewed during happy hour or while waiting in line at the DMV.
I still draw the line at members of the media declaring on social networking sites that they're "nervous" about an upcoming game, but sometimes that can be a side effect of running too fast in dress shoes and biffing it on live television.
If Arizona gets past SDSU on Thursday (it beat the Aztecs in San Diego in November, one of the few teams to do so the last few years), it will mean an Elite Eight game on Saturday against either Baylor or Wisconsin. Both games are in Anaheim, a hotbed of Wildcat alumni that should make for a raucous and Arizona-friendly atmosphere. The UA had a big fan contingent for the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, as well as last weekend in San Diego, showing that pretty much the entire southwest corner of this nation is Wildcat country.
I expect most people around these parts (not counting the ASU alums; sorry, guys, should have boxed out and prevented that buzzer-beating putback basket by Texas) expect Arizona to win both games this weekend and move on to the Final Four. And considering how good this team is, those expectations aren't outlandish in the least.
It's been 13 years since Arizona played in a Final Four, and there have been two close calls since then. The most recent was in 2011, when an underdog group led by Derrick Williams was a shot short of beating eventual champion Connecticut. The other time was in 2005, when ...
Well, if you're an Arizona fan, you know all too well what happened that late-March evening in suburban Chicago and would prefer NOT to discuss it. I can still recall the wild swing of events that saw me go from starting to book my tickets to the Final Four in St. Louis while still seated on press row to trying to interview Channing Frye and others while they wiped away tears.
Arizona is good enough to make the Final Four, and should do so. The tougher game will be against the Aztecs, because they're a familiar foe that will have their own solid faction of fans making the two-hour (traffic willing) drive up the coast. After that, it's playing either a bunch of mostly white guys or a team that wears uniforms made from lightning bug carcasses and used highlighters.
I want to see Arizona reach the Final Four, I won't deny that. That's partly because I'm an alum, partly because I like seeing the best teams live up to their potential and partly because I want to see how Tucson handles another week of buildup between games.
And how it deals with whatever happens in the next game or games.
In 1988 and 1994, from what I've heard (it was before my time here), this city was nothing but happy leading up to the Final Four, and although disappointed after semifinal losses both times, the collective reaction was little more than "Aw, shucks."
The 1997 reaction was pure elation, with hundreds of students joining in an impromptu celebration of the Cats' national championship on the UA mall—where the sprinklers came on shortly after the game ended—and fans along Fourth Avenue taking to the streets to hoot, holler and cheer.
And then there was the reaction in 2001 after losing to Duke in the title game: LET'S RIOT!
How will Tucson react to another Final Four appearance by the Wildcats? I have my suspicions, as do police, judging by their pre-emptive tactical training exercises. But there are a couple of big games left between now and then.