Arizona returns 10 letterwinners from a team that won 30 games and a conference championship a year ago.
And yet the questions still arise. Questions about what was lost than what returns.
How will the Wildcats replace All-Americans Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire? The duo that combined to average nearly 35 points and 10 rebounds last year, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field.
According to head coach Lute Olson, the answer is simple: balance.
““I think the focus this year will be on balance,” said Olson. “Last year, we knew that Salim was capable of putting up big numbers and Channing was very consistent for us in terms of scoring and rebounding. It won’t be a case of where will have a player that’s going to be able to do what Salim did or be as consistent as Channing was, but I think the balance that we’ll have will make up for that.”
Olson does return 11 players (10 letterwinners and one medical redshirt) from a team that finished minutes shy of the Final Four, including three starters. All told, that amounts to 57.5 percent of the points scored, 64.7 percent of the rebounding and 69 percent of the minutes played.
“It should be a good, solid team,” Olson said. “We’ll have a lot of experience and a lot of depth. We feel good about the number of guys we have coming back. They are a year older and should be a year better. The key thing is going to be balance. One guy will not shoulder the load for us.”
With a program that has averaged better than 26 wins per season over the last 18 years, it’s difficult to suggest that the Wildcats will sneak up on anyone. Arizona’s status as an elite program won’t allow for that. But there are enough questions, at least externally, to say that the jury is still out when it relates to preseason prognostications.
“I don’t know how much we will surprise people because of the reputation of the program,” said the Hall-of-Fame head coach. “There have been years that I have felt less strongly, maybe ?- where we’re picked higher than where I would have picked at the time. Because of the loss of the guys we had last year, I think there will be an inclination to pick us lower, but yet, I feel very comfortable with this team.”
Yes, the Wildcats are relatively young. Nine of the players on the 15-man roster are freshmen or sophomores. Of those nine players, only one, sophomore Jawann McClellan, averaged more than 15 minutes per game a year ago.
“We’re going to be young and relying on some of those younger people,” explained Olson. “It’s a matter of getting game experience for some of the younger guys. We know how talented these guys are. The concern is that we just need to get them game experience. Because of the competition in practice every day, I think they will be ready for the games.”
It’s that daily competition in practice that excites Olson. The head-to-head battles in practice forge great teams. Few game day situations should be as difficult as what is faced in practice. That competition is what will separate the 2005-06 edition of the Arizona Wildcats.
“I don’t think the individual parts are as big as the whole,” said Olson, who begins his 23rd season in Tucson. “The way they compete, the way they play with each other will make up for some of the lack of experience. Because of the competition in practice, this team will continue to get better as the season progresses.”
What makes this team a bit different is that not only is there depth in numbers, but depth at each position. In the past, UA has had players that were athletic enough to play multiple positions. This season there is solid depth one through five so each player can play within the comfort level of his natural position.
Arizona will have the ability to play to each player’s strengths at both ends of the court with the goal creating problems for the opposition.
“We’re going to make it a situation where we can play with multiple lineups,” Olson explained. “We want to create match-up problems for the opposition. We will have a lot of flexibility. We will be attempting to put a lot of pressure on people to increase the tempo of the game.”
Arizona has thrived at a faster pace. For a team that has averaged more points per game than any team other team in the nation over the last four seasons, increasing the tempo and getting more possessions could only lead to success. Especially with a roster featuring so many talented players.
“We’re going to have excellent depth,” said Olson. “We’re going to try to use that depth with pressure. I think it will be as quick a team as any we’ve ever had here and certainly the deepest.”
Leading the way for the Wildcats is senior guard Hassan Adams. The 6-foot-4 Los Angeles, Calif., native averaged 12.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in 2004-05 to go with a career-best 104 assists. A starter in all 37 games as a junior, Adams steps into the leadership role in his final collegiate season.
Adams, the Pac-10 Conference’s active leader in points scored (1,275) and rebounds (551), heads into his senior season fully entrenched on the perimeter. He’s worked hard on all facets of his game and Olson expects big things from his most-experienced Wildcat.
“I think that Hassan Adams is going to have a year that will equal anyone we’ve had around here in terms of his overall play,” Olson said. “His rebounding, defense and shooting has really continued to improve. Last year was the first year that he played on the perimeter. He’s worked very hard in the offseason on his perimeter skills.”
Joining Adams in the senior class is forward Isaiah Fox. The 6-foot-9 product of Santa Monica, Calif., is now fully recovered from a knee injury as a junior and is in the best physical shape of his career.
If Fox can regain some of the productivity and consistency he showed early in his career, it will go a long way toward solidifying some of Arizona’s frontcourt concerns. In his 94-game career, Fox has averaged 3.5 points and 3.2 rebounds. Olson hopes those numbers will rise sharply in 2005-06.
“Isaiah is in the best physical condition that he’s ever been,” said Olson. “Now, it’s up to him to merge his experience with his conditioning to improve his productivity. We need him to step up. He’s a fifth-year guy and we’re counting on the experience.”
The third member of the senior class is guard Chris Rodgers. A 6-foot-4 native of Portland, Ore., Rodgers is arguably Arizona’s best defender and should benefit from a move to the wing.
Rodgers averaged 5.5 points and 1.1 steals per game in 2004-05, while also leading the Cats with a 2.30 assist:turnover ratio. A career 37 percent shooter from three-point range, Rodgers has worked hard on his shot and could be one of UA’s best outside threats.
“Chris continues to make great progress,” said the Wildcat mentor. “He is one of our best defenders and could be one of our best perimeter shooters.”
There is also quite a bit of productivity in the Wildcats’ junior class, as each could be a projected starter.
Junior point guard Mustafa Shakur returns as the floor leader, a position he has occupied since coming to Tucson. The 6-foot-3 Philadelphia, Pa., product averaged 8.1 points and 4.5 assists last year. A starter in 65 of 67 career appearances, the Wildcats are 28-5 when Shakur passes out five or more assists in a game.
Shakur will be counted on to provide a bit more scoring punch in Arizona’s projected balanced attack. He has 27 career double-figure scoring games to his credit.
“Mustafa has worked very, very hard in the offseason on his shooting,” Olson explained. “We need to have good, balanced scoring from all five guys and Mustafa’s contributions will be key. Once he gets the game confidence and adjusts to the new role as a scorer, I think we’ll see big things from him.”
Forward Ivan Radenovic is Arizona’s third returning starter. The 6-foot-10 junior, who is as comfortable on the perimeter as around the basket, averaged 8.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in 2004-05, while shooting better than 45 percent from the field. The Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, product added 23 pounds to his frame during the offseason.
“With Ivan, people were amazed at how much he improved from his freshman to sophomore year,” Olson said. “I think you are going to see that same type of jump between last year and now. We’re expecting a lot out of him. He needs to be one of our top scorers and rebounders. He’s going to have a great year.”
“I think this team will have a great shot at the Pac-10 title again,” said Olson. “It will be the kind of team, because of the competition in practice, that will only get better and better. I think the balance that we’ll have will make up for that. I really think this will be a team with five guys averaging in double figures. We’re excited about the year.”
The key to the Wildcat fortunes may lie with junior center Kirk Walters. The 6-foot-10 native of Grand Rapids, Mich., will be looked to fill the sizeable shoes of current New York Knick Channing Frye.
Walters averaged 2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds per game in 21 games last year, while shooting 54.8 percent from the floor. He also averaged 0.7 blocked shots in 2004-05.
Walters, who sat out the first 15 games a year ago as a projected redshirt, may benefit most from simply getting playing time. He’s displayed a more assertive approach in the preseason. Olson hopes that carries over into the regular season.
“Our biggest question mark early on will be the continued development of Kirk Walters,” said Olson. The biggest thing there is confidence on his part because he is going to be a really good player.
“He’s become very aggressive. He’s trying to dunk everything now and putting pressure on the defender to stop him. Defensively, he needs to have a stronger presence as a shot blocker.”
A quartet of sophomores should add a great deal of productivity to the UA lineup, as Jawann McClellan, Jesus Verdejo, Daniel Dillon and Bret Brielmaier are poised to build upon the experiences of last season.
McClellan, a 6-foot-4 guard from Houston, Texas, averaged 5.8 points and 3.0 rebounds, while shooting 46.8 percent from the field. The only freshman to play in all 37 games in 2004-05, McClellan proved to be tough down the stretch by averaging 8.9 points and 4.0 rebounds in seven postseason games to go with 57.5 percent shooting from the field.
McClellan is the Wildcats’ most proven perimeter shooter, as his 39.3 percent shooting from behind the arc last year trailed only that of Stoudamire (50.4). He is expected to blossom when his playing increases from the 15.5 minutes per game McClellan averaged as a freshman.
“Jawann is our best outside shooter,” said Olson. “We really expect to see great things from him with increased playing time. He’ll be a stabilizing force for us.”
Verdejo, a 6-foot-4 swingman from Carolina, Puerto Rico, averaged 2.3 points, 0.4 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 26 appearances last year.
Over the summer, Verdejo played on the Puerto Rican national team that finished in seventh place at the 2005 FIBA Under-21 World Championships for Men. In eight games, Verdejo averaged 11.9 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, while shooting 50 percent (28-of-56) from the field.
Olson feels that Verdejo greatest improvements need to come defensively. “Jesus can score with anyone,” commented Olson. “He just needs to work on the transition from offense to defense. We need him to pressure the ball on defense.”
Another player who gained quite a bit of international experience over the summer was Dillon. A 6-foot-3 guard from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Dillon was a member of the Australian national team that finished in seventh place at the 2005 World University Games. In eight games, he averaged 7.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, while shooting 41.7 percent (25-of-60) from the field.
In 23 appearances for the Cats last season, Dillon averaged 1.0 points and 0.6 rebounds.
“From the end of last season to the start of practice, Daniel has improved more than anybody,” said Olson. “He will be one of our top two defenders, and he’ll be much more comfortable on the wing offensively.”
Brielmaier, a forward from Mankato, Minn., was one of the team’s pleasant surprises last season. He joined the team as a walk-on and worked his way into a frontline reserve and averaged 0.7 points and 1.1 rebounds in 19 games.
Brielmaier’s hard work continues to pay off, as he has added 21 pounds to his 6-foot-6 frame.
“We felt that Bret made great strides last season and he has continued in that vein,” Olson said. “He’s added quite a bit of muscle in the offseason. He’s smart, he picks things up quickly and he works hard. I think he will challenge people in there this season.”
The remaining Wildcat returnee is forward Mohamed Tangara. The 6-foot-9 native of Bamako, Mali, was able to play in only five games last year due to a back injury, where he averaged 0.2 points and 0.4 rebounds. He was granted a medical hardship waiver following the season.
The season in recovery served Tangara well. He is now completely healthy and has added 12 pounds of much-needed muscle.
“It is great to have Mohamed at full strength,” quipped Olson. “Mohamed is totally well. He’s not like a freshman because he had a year to learn and to watch even though he couldn’t work out. He’s way ahead of where he was at this point last year. He’s so aggressive to the glass and has worked hard on his offensive moves.”
Olson also likes what he sees in the freshman class, as all four players have the potential to help right away.
Fendi Onobun, a 6-foot-6 forward from Alief Taylor High School in Houston, Texas, averaged 16.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 blocked shots per game as a senior. He carries a strong physical presence and is a relentless rebounder who possesses a steady mid-range jump shot.
“Fendi is so strong inside,” said Olson. “The strength is there, the quickness, and the shooting touch are all there.”
J.P. Prince, a 6-foot-6 point guard from White Station High School in Memphis, Tenn., averaged 27.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game last season. Prince is an outstanding decision maker with a great ability to share the ball.
“J.P. Prince is a true point guard,” said Olson, “who is long and athletic. A year ago, we didn’t have that luxury. We had combo guards as back-ups. J.P. will go against Mustafa this year and both players should benefit from the competition.”
Marcus Williams, a 6-foot-7 forward from Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Wash., averaged 28.6 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.0 steals as a senior. One of the best wing players to come out of the west, Williams is an outstanding outside shooter with the ability to beat guys off the dribble.
“Marcus Williams is going to be helpful to us immediately,” Olson said. “He has size, athleticism and he shoots the ball well. He has an inside and outside game. He takes the ball to the basket very well. He’ll be a challenge for a lot of defenders.”
David Bagga, a 6-foot-4 guard from Foothill Ranch, Calif., and Mater Dei High School, joins the program as a walk-on. He comes to Arizona after helping the Monarchs to a 31-4 record as a senior and a CIF Division II state championship game appearance in 2004-05.
“He is a very team-oriented guy,” said Olson. “All he wants to do is help us win.”
No matter what questions face the Wildcats heading into the 2005-06 season, the good news is that they will be answered quickly. Arizona opens the year at the EA Sports Maui Invitational, which features five teams ranked in ESPN.com’s summer top 25.
The rest of the non-conference slate features a home game with Virginia and the Fiesta Bowl Classic presented by Bank One, not to mention road tilts at Houston, Utah and North Carolina.
“We always play a tough schedule because I don’t think you gain anything from playing teams that you can beat by big numbers,” Olson explained. “You learn by playing against strong competition. Win or lose, you are far better off than playing schools you can beat up on.
“If you look at the Maui Invitational field, I don’t think there ever has been a better (preseason) tournament than that one. Regardless of what happens to us there, I think we will come out of that with a much better awareness of what we need to do in order to get better.”
Preseason questions aside, Olson feels the 2005-06 Wildcats could turn into something special.
“We’re excited about this season,” he explained. “We have great team chemistry. By the time we get to March, we could be better than last year. It should be a good year.”