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Arizona Gets Fresh Start

Top-seeded Wildcats hope that time off after upset loss to UCLA in Pac-10 tournament will help their focus.

March 20, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — The only danger for Arizona as it prepares for first-round play in the NCAA tournament is confusing this Thursday with last Thursday.

Big difference.

Last Thursday, Coach Lute Olson made the calculated decision to downplay the importance of the Pacific 10 Conference tournament, knowing there was no advantage to his Wildcats winning the tournament title.

Arizona had already locked up a top seeding in the West, and an early send-off would allow almost a full week to rest star forward Luke Walton's nagging ankle injury.

Some coaches seethed at Olson's public posturing, but Arizona responded beautifully to its half-hearted plan and lost its first-round game to UCLA, a team it had previously defeated by 35 and 36 points. Star guard Jason Gardner missed 20 of his 22 shots and Arizona was back in Tucson by midnight.

"I'm positive, I'm confident," Gardner said Wednesday. "I'm anxious to get out there on the floor. I'm just not very worried about it."

Another advantage of the loss was that Arizona also lost its No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll to Kentucky. Who needs the pressure of being No. 1 headed into the NCAA tournament?

It's a completely different story today as top-seeded Arizona opens West Regional play at the Huntsman Center against 16th-seeded Vermont.

Well, we think Arizona will have an opponent.

It is presumed Vermont finally arrived in Salt Lake City late Wednesday night after an adventurous, weather-delayed trip to its first NCAA tournament.

The Catamounts' left Burlington on Tuesday morning, made a connecting flight in Chicago but were held over in Denver because of bad weather.

Wednesday, with Denver International Airport still closed, the team took a bus to Colorado Springs and chartered a flight to Salt Lake City.

And now, if you can believe it, comes the hard part, having to face Arizona.

"I'm sure they're ready to take out their frustrations," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said of his first-round opponents. "I can't imagine what they are going through."

If all continues to go rotten, Vermont will be in and out of this tournament in less than a day.

Arizona knows all about get-away weekends, yet unlike last week's brief appearance in Los Angeles, the Wildcats are looking forward to a long and fruitful weekend in Salt Lake on the first leg of a trip they hope includes a return trip to Southern California for next week's West Regional at the Arrowhead Pond and a Final Four trip to New Orleans.

The real trouble for Arizona begins after today as it readies for what figures to be a rough ride through the West, by far the toughest of the four regions.

After Vermont, Arizona would play the Cincinnati-Gonzaga winner. After that, it might be Illinois, then the Duke-Kansas winner and, if Arizona is still standing, Kentucky looms as a possible national semifinal opponent.

Olson said he thinks he has prepared his team for the rigors that await with a tough nonconference schedule that included games against Texas, Kansas and Louisiana State.

"I've always felt if you wanted to be the best, you had to play the best," Olson said. "We tried to play in big arenas to get ready for the atmosphere in the NCAA."

Arizona proved it can focus this year, winning at Kansas by 17.

Of course, the West isn't tough only for Arizona. Schools in the region have totaled eight national championships: Duke with three, Kansas and Cincinnati with two each, and Arizona with its one.

Creighton star Kyle Korver said he is looking forward to the challenge.

Sort of.

Today, his team opens first-round play here against Central Michigan.

"All we have to do is beat Central Michigan, Duke, Kansas, Arizona and Kentucky and Texas and we win it all," Korver said.

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