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Does Arizona Have the Past on Its Side?

March 13, 2004|Robyn Norwood

Is it wishful thinking or a true resemblance that's making some people compare this hard-to-figure Arizona team to the 1997 Wildcats who won the NCAA title?

As Arizona looks nervously ahead to selection Sunday after losing to Washington in the Pac-10 tournament Friday, some are noting that Lute Olson's only national championship team was a youthful group that bumped through the conference season with an 11-7 record and lost four of its last nine regular-season games.

So did this one.

That team had a freshman point guard named Mike Bibby.

This team has a freshman point guard named Mustafa Shakur who earned his big-shot credentials with that sprint-and-shoot three-point basket to beat USC on Thursday.

The '97 team didn't have a senior in the starting lineup, starting a freshman, a sophomore and three juniors. (Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson led what amounted to a three-guard lineup, with Bennett Davison and A.J. Bramlett inside.)

This team starts a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors who might not be better players than the '97 group yet but look to be the most athletic bunch in Arizona history.

"Are we kind of under the radar like we were in '97? Absolutely," said Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner, who was a member of the NCAA championship team.

"People said we were too young, that there was not really a chance for us to do it. There's a lot of similarities. It's a matter of getting hot, and we're capable of getting hot. In '97, we got hot at the right time."

Here, though, are some of the differences:

That was a much better Pac-10 in which the '97 team went 11-7. (Five teams went to the NCAA tournament.)

And that team had the leadership of Miles Simon, the guard who sat out the early part of the season because of academic probation then came back and led the way to the title, scoring 30 points against Kentucky in a classic overtime NCAA championship game.

Leadership is what this team lacks. These Wildcats never have managed to replace the selflessness and big-game mojo of Jason Gardner and Luke Walton.

It's been one of Olson's refrains: "We had great leadership last year."

Salim Stoudamire would seem an obvious candidate, but the gifted junior guard has a personality seemingly as mercurial as his jump shot, and Olson suspended him for a game late in the season for what amounted to attitude issues.

Channing Frye, the other junior, is a thoughtful but soft-spoken person -- and it's harder for a center to lead than a guard, anyway.

"We miss Jason Gardner right now," Pastner said. "But, hey, guys have got to step up, lead by example, and I think we're gelling at the right time. The chemistry's coming along the way we expected at the beginning of the year, which is a good sign."

There are other issues.

"I think we have similarities, but I don't think we have the depth like they did," Stoudamire said.

Arizona lost a hunk of its interior depth when power forward Isaiah Fox was lost to a knee injury in December.

And one of the talented players who could have been helping on the perimeter, Will Bynum, will play for Georgia Tech in the NCAA tournament after transferring last season.

The lack of depth contributes to another problem: Defense.

Arizona led the conference in scoring but was next-to-last in scoring defense and allowed opponents to shoot almost 47%. (The other team shot less than 41% last season.)

Since Olson believes defense is one of the critical factors in postseason success -- he's hardly alone -- it's a major issue.

But another major issue in the postseason is free-throw shooting, and Arizona excels there, ranking second nationally at 77.9%.

This team would seem to have a great future -- sophomores Andre Iguodala and Hassan Adams have eye-popping athleticism and Shakur should only get better.

In this NCAA tournament, the 21st-ranked Wildcats -- whose 19-8 record coming into the Pac-10 tournament already meant they're headed for a considerably lower seeding than they've become accustomed to -- might have a better chance to pull upsets than be upset-fodder.

"I don't think we'll get upset in the first round. I refuse to believe that," Frye said. "I really believe we won't settle for anything less than the Final Four."

Pastner insists it's possible.

"We're good enough to win the national championship, there's no doubt about that," he said. "But with that comes you've got to be able to play defense, you've got to rebound, you've got to get the breaks, get a call or two, make your free throws, and the ball's got to bounce your way. There's a lot of little things."

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