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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / 2000-2001 PREVIEW

Pursuing Perfection

Arizona Players Not Shy About Their Goals of an Unbeaten Season and Ranking Among the College Game's All-Time Great Teams

November 16, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Arizona Wildcats start the season as one of the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled, but we're much more interested in where they'll

end up.

Let us not mince words here. Arizona is that good.

If you don't believe it, just ask them.

"This team can be as good as it wants to be," senior center Loren Woods says. "I think with the talent that we have, it compares up there with anybody in the nation and the history of college basketball."

It's big talk, but, at 7 feet 1, Woods is a big man.

Even Coach Lute Olson, the prince of wince, has thrown up his hands on this one and isn't even trying to stop the gush from his players.

It's sort of like plugging a dam break with a wad of gum.

"I've always tried with our players to be upfront," Olson says. "I'm not going to tell somebody you're not very good if he's pretty good."

You have to admire Woods' gumption.

We complain all the time about robotic players spouting the "one-game-at-a-time" company line, and here comes a guy waggling his index finger in the air like Joe Namath in Miami.

Refreshing, as long as you deliver, right?

Woods does not come to this discussion without talking points.

In a first, all five Arizona starters are on the Wooden Award watch list. This is a lineup--Woods, Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner--that may have won the national title last season if not for a back injury that forced Woods to sit out the NCAA tournament. Without Woods, Wisconsin dispatched Arizona in the second round.

With Woods sound after off-season back surgery, and a bench as deep as a trench, Arizona has a chance to be special.

Pacific 10 Conference coaches do not necessarily dispute this notion.

Washington Coach Bob Bender on Arizona: "In my first seven years in the league, this is the team you look at and say, clear-cut, they're the best. Not only in the league, but nationally."

Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery: "I think the potential is there for Arizona to be maybe as good a team as this conference has seen in a long time."

Oregon Coach Ernie Kent: "It's your pick, it's our pick, it's the most dominant team in the conference and maybe the most dominant team in the country."

Woods and the Wildcats are not interested in being good, however, or merely winning a national title. In the locker room and in pickup games, they are talking about posterity.

The conversation?

"It just goes like, 'Man, we can be one of the best teams ever. If, if, if, if, if,' " Woods said. "It's just fun to us. We laugh about it, we always compare ourselves to past teams that were great, like Duke of '92, the Fab Five, UNLV."

Sometimes the talk gets crazy. Sometimes Woods and his teammates razz Luke Walton, a key Arizona reserve and the son of Bill, who led UCLA to NCAA titles in 1972 and '73.

"We still get on Luke," Woods says. "We say we can beat Bill Walton's UCLA teams, even though they won like three championships [two, actually] and went 88-1 maybe [86-4, actually]. But those teams had what we don't have right now, and that's killer instinct."

What, historically, is Arizona up against?

Seven schools have gone undefeated en route to the NCAA championship. The first was San Francisco in 1956 (29-0), followed in 1957 by North Carolina (32-0). John Wooden led UCLA on undefeated championship runs in 1964 (30-0), 1967 (30-0), and consecutive 30-0 seasons in '72 and '73.

It has been 24 years since Indiana, in 1976, completed the last unbeaten season, going 32-0 en route to the title.

Will it happen again?

"No," says Bender, a bench warmer for Knight's 1976 squad. "There are just more good teams now. There's quality in conferences that wasn't there before and it's also a fact that at almost every level of athletics, the consistency of hunger is harder to maintain today."

There are other reasons. Schools play more games today, travel farther to play them--Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico--and purposely schedule more difficult nonconference games.

Also, with the bulk of the most talented players leaving early for the NBA, teams don't stay together long enough to make exceptional NCAA runs.

Duke was an exception in the early 1990s, and its veteran core of Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Thomas Hill and Bobby Hurley led the Blue Devils to consecutive titles in 1991 and '92. The 1992 team finished 34-2, the losses coming in conference to North Carolina and Wake Forest. Duke spent the entire season at No. 1 and became the first school since UCLA to repeat as champion.

And lest you forget: Despite the hype, Michigan's famed Fab Five failed to win an NCAA title, losing the 1992 and '93 title games, although there's no telling what history could have been made had that group stayed together for four years.

Still, perfection in college basketball may prove to be elusive.

Times have changed.

In 1976, the year Indiana ran the table, Rutgers also was unbeaten entering the Final Four before losing to Michigan in the national semifinals.

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