SAN ANTONIO -- Arizona began the season with so much depth and talent that players hinted that the national title wasn't a high enough goal. Center Loren Woods said the Wildcats might go down as the greatest team ever.
Then, before the first tipoff, Woods was suspended. Three weeks after he returned, the coach's wife died. A week later, Arizona was in a tailspin and in jeopardy of dissolving into an overrated flop.
Now the Wildcats are three wins from the national championship. And while their rebirth sets up a heartwarming tale about a group of young men coming together in tough times and using adversity as a springboard, players say it's no big deal.
"It's really hard to put a finger on why this is special to us, but I won't say it's because of things that happened in the past. That's definitely not why," forward Richard Jefferson said.
"We never made excuses that this is why or this is what's going on. We knew we just had to play better. Once we got into a groove, we knew things were going to turn around for us."
Second-seeded Arizona (26-7) plays top-seeded Illinois (27-7) in the Midwest Region final Sunday. It'll be the third time this season the teams have played.
The first two games - a 79-76 Arizona win in Maui on Nov. 22 and an 81-73 Illini victory in Chicago on Dec. 16 - were heavy on physical play and everyone is expecting more of the same with a spot in the Final Four on the line this time.
"I wouldn't say we'll approach it as a street fight, but there's going to be a lot of banging," said Illinois' Frank Williams, who set a career-best with 27 points in the first game against the Wildcats, then topped that with 30 against Kansas in the regional semifinals Friday night.
Said Jefferson: "It's East vs. West. It's not friendly. If anyone saw the second game, it was a battle. There were quite a few scuffles. We're going into this game expecting the same thing.'
Illinois, on its longest tournament run since 1989, is peaking at the right time. After beating early round foes by 42 and 18 points, the Illini beat the Jayhawks by 16. It was the biggest blowout loss for Kansas coach Roy Williams in 37 games over 12 NCAA tournaments.
Illinois didn't shoot very well, but didn't have to because of excellent defense and rebounding and aggressive inside play that wore out the depth-challenged Jayhawks.
Although a similar game plan worked for the Illini against Arizona in Chicago, the Wildcats are ready for it this time. They seem ready for anything after winning 18 of 20 since enduring a 5-5 December-January funk.
"I don't see any weaknesses with their team," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "When they were the preseason pick to win the national championship, I don't think many people disputed that. The way they're playing right now, they would definitely be considered one of the premier teams in the country."
Arizona's hot streak began when coach Lute Olson returned from a five-game leave of absence following the death of his wife, Bobbi.
By then, Woods was starting to re-establish his role after missing six games for an NCAA rule infraction and the Wildcats already had dealt with Jefferson's one-game suspension for another NCAA violation.
While players might dismiss those distractions as reasons for their early season hiccup, Olson knows better.
"I think athletes need a stable environment," he said. "We didn't provide that until we got into January."
A team meeting while Olson was gone also helped remind players that they had to play as a team instead of a collection of individual stars.
Once that message got through, the Wildcats started playing the way they thought they would all along. If they can keep it up for another week, they'll also end up where they thought they would.
"Everybody is going to make it seem that this team has gone through sooo many ups and downs and they still have the talent and they won it," Woods said. "But some people are going to look at it as they had the talent anyway so they should've have won it.
"We don't really care. We want to win it because we want to win. We're competitors."
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