SAN DIEGO — At the start of every University of Arizona basketball game, Jud Buechler plants himself firmly on the bench. He knows well that he won't get half the playing time he did at Poway High School and that his personal statistics will pale in comparison to his high school averages.
And that's just fine.
"Things are going great. I could not be better," Buechler, a 6-foot 6-inch sophomore for the Wildcats, said by phone this week. "Every once in a while I'll get down because I'm not playing as much as I'd like, but then I remember we're the No. 1 team in the nation.
"We're playing great basketball and the whole city of Tucson has gone basketball mad."
Arizona started the season 17th in the Associated Press poll but quickly surged to the top with impressive victories over Michigan, Syracuse, Iowa and Duke. The Wildcats stumbled Jan. 2 at New Mexico and dropped to third, but a week later they regained the No. 1 spot.
On Thursday, they were upset by Stanford and figure to fall in this week's poll. They are 20-2 and will play at California today.
Although Buechler, 19, hasn't played a starring role in Arizona's surprising season, he has contributed off the bench. Playing forward and guard, he is averaging 13 minutes and 5.6 points per game.
"He's doing really well," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said. "He's contributing in a lot of ways, and I think he's making really good progress.
"We're able to use him at either the forward spot or the second guard spot. He's a good passer, he shoots for a good percentage (49%) and, defensively, he's our second-best player."
Buechler (pronounced BUSH-ler) is actually playing less this year than he did as a freshman, though it isn't his fault.
In the summer of 1986, Arizona guard Steve Kerr suffered a serious knee injury while playing for the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the world championships in Spain. He missed all of last season as a result.
Buechler helped fill the void. He started nine games, averaging 15.8 minutes and 4.5 points as the Wildcats compiled an 18-12 record, good for second in the Pacific-10, and qualified for the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season.
Kerr recovered well from his injury and is back at lead guard for the Wildcats.
"Steve Kerr's return has affected all the underclassmen," Olson said. "He has to be out there most of the time for us. That's cut down on some of the opportunities."
Buechler led Poway to three consecutive San Diego Section 3-A titles and was the county's leading scorer with a 23.3 average as a senior in 1986.
He said: "In high school, I had an influence on our success. Here, it's different because I'm not playing as much (and I'm not) the leading scorer."
He isn't complaining, though, not with the Wildcats rated among the nation's best.
"It's something that every ballplayer hopes would happen," he said. "When I chose Arizona, people were wondering what I was doing. But now people come up to my parents in the grocery store and tell them it's obvious I made the right decision.
"It's just my second year, and I think we'll continue to have great teams."
If they do, Buechler probably will play a prominent role.
"I think he's going to be a critical member of the squad," Olson said. "We lose both guards and our post man, and Jud should have an excellent chance at one of those positions because of his versatility."
Said Buechler: "Because I can play every position, that will be a big plus. I knew I would pay my dues and then break into the starting lineup my third or fourth year. I think my future is bright."
More immediately, Buechler said this year's Arizona team can go far.
"After preseason, there was a great feeling," he said. "It was obvious we had a great attitude. Last year we had a tough running program, and everyone complained. This year, it was completely different.
"Then we looked at our schedule and we had Michigan, and they were ranked No. 1 by (TV analyst) Dick Vitale, and Syracuse, which a lot of people ranked No. 1. They were forced to rank us No. 1 because of who we played."
Ratings won't mean much, however, if the Wildcats can't improve upon their postseason record of recent years.
Last season, Texas El Paso ousted them in the first round. The year before it was one game and out with a loss to Auburn, and in 1985 Alabama knocked the Wildcats out in Round 1.
Buechler says it will be different this time.
"We've really played well, and we haven't had many letdowns," he said. "We're hungry, and I think we can go all the way."