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J.A. Adande

High Drama

This Arizona team has fostered a likability, making it more than a sentimental favorite.

April 02, 2001|J.A. Adande

MINNEAPOLIS — There's a whole new way of looking at the Arizona Wildcats, one that was previously unimaginable.

They used to come off as arrogant crybabies, acting as if they owned the world as they whined about a perceived lack of respect.

This team that challenges Duke tonight for the national championship is the sentimental favorite. It's a label that has come to fit the Wildcats just as well as one of Coach Lute Olson's tailored suits.

But the Arizona team that arrived here for the Final Four is one that has been humbled by its own disappointing play earlier this season and traumatized by the trials of life.

Loren Woods and Richard Jefferson were suspended. In December, basketball office secretary Monica Armenta had a seizure and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A team many picked No. 1 before the season started 8-5. In the midst of the team's struggles, Olson's wife of 47 years, Bobbi, died of ovarian cancer on New Year's Day.

Now it's impossible to look at Olson without feeling compassion. Even the success must be difficult, because what are great times worth if they can't be shared with the most special person in someone's life?

"It's difficult for me," said Olson, who took a two-week sabbatical that started two days before Bobbi's death. "I've had a lot of letters from other people in different fields who have gone through this same thing. I've had friends who have gone through the same thing. It's whether you're in coaching or whether you're in business or anything. It's difficult. It's a difficult thing to deal with when you've been together that long."

Reminders are inescapable. There's a billboard that reads "Four Bobbi" just outside the Metrodome, where the Final Four is being played. Fans wear the motto on buttons. And there are the daily inquiries during media sessions.

The second question posed to the Wildcats after their impressive victory over Michigan State on Saturday night was about the emotions of the moment considering all that Olson has endured.

Olson dropped his head and tapped his left hand on the dais.

"I think it's real tough, knowing what Coach O and his family have been through," said Jefferson, an Arizona forward. "What makes it harder is to see the look on his face, to see what we have to go through every time someone continues to bring it up."

Olson handles it with grace. On the sidelines he carries the same cool persona. He casually carried a cup of water in the first half of the Michigan State game, looking as if he were at a cocktail reception. When he arose from his chair to protest a traveling call, he didn't spill a drop.

In some respects he is better than ever. Much of the program's smug attitude came from Olson himself, but Olson isn't so condescending in his dealings with the media anymore. He even took the initiative to defrost a relationship with Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen that had been icy for 10 years after Hansen criticized Olson in print. This group of players is more pleasant than some of the recent teams as well. Eugene Edgerson, the backup forward with the old-school Afro and retro shoes who redshirted last season to teach kindergarten, is a favorite. And it's as enjoyable to listen to Jefferson's studio-ready commentary as it is to watch his athletic exploits. Gilbert Arenas, the team's soft-spoken prankster, is another go-to guy in the locker room.

There's even a different tone to Arizona's ongoing quest for recognition for West Coast basketball.

'It's just a great opportunity to play against one of the leading teams on the East Coast," Edgerson said of tonight's matchup with Duke. "It think it's time to show what we're capable of."

Edgerson gets it. Earn the praise on the court, don't demand it in the news conferences.

These guys certainly are capable of getting it done on the court.

"I don't want people to just like us because of all of the tough times that we've endured this season," Edgerson said. "I want people to like us because we're a good basketball team."

It's a team that has lost only twice since Dec. 30. It just showed enough toughness to battle with Michigan State's aggressive rebounders, while using its speed and quickness to slay the Spartans with 12 steals.

Actually, it's a blessing that Arizona didn't play at its best throughout the regular season. Because the bracket rotation has the East Region winner playing the West Region winner in the national semifinals this year, Duke and Arizona would have played on Saturday had the Wildcats won the Pacific 10 Conference and stayed in their home region. Because Arizona went to the Midwest, as the No. 2 seed, we'll get to see a championship game between the two best teams in the country. Just the way it ought to be.

And although the Wildcats are missing a person who played such a caring and nurturing role in all of their lives, they are a stronger group for their ordeal.

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