March 11, 2002
By BOB BAUM
AP Sports Writer
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - With the demise of North Carolina, Arizona has the longest active streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances at 18.
Including his time at Iowa, coach Lute Olson has had to sit out the tournament just once in the past 24 years.
"The amazing thing about it is that we've been able to stay consistent from year to year," Olson said Monday, "and certainly if anyone was going to say that string was about to be broken, I'm sure it would have been this year."
The Wildcats lost four starters from last year's NCAA runner-up team and weren't even in the preseason Top 25.
Yet with three juniors and five freshmen in the rotation, Arizona put together a strong season that culminated with the championship in the Pac-10 tournament.
Now, the seventh-ranked Wildcats are the No. 3 seed in the West. If they beat UC-Santa Barbara on Thursday in Albuquerque, they probably will face a second-round matchup with sixth-ranked Gonzaga. The 'Zags, despite a 29-3 record and a history of NCAA tournament success, managed only a No. 6 seed.
"Certainly it's a tough draw," said Olson, who thought his team would get the No. 2 seed, "but you can't do anything about it. You just play it."
The Wildcats will go to Albuquerque early Tuesday to get used to the environment and altitude.
Two of the team's junior leaders, Jason Gardner and Luke Walton, were part of the Arizona team that lost to Duke in last year's championship game. Gardner was the starting point guard and Walton the first man off the bench. Walton has emerged as the team's steady on-court general, the conference leader in assists and MVP of the Pac-10 tournament.
As they have all season, Gardner and Walton will make sure the freshmen understand what is facing them.
"It's our job to make sure they're ready, so we're definitely going to talk to them and let them know that even though we've played in big games, there's nothing like a tournament game," Walton said.
The Wildcats (22-9) had an up-and-down season, but they are coming off a stretch of three victories in as many nights in the conference tournament, which was reinstated after 12 years.
Olson, an outspoken opponent of the tournament, admits that it has his given the freshmen important experience and the team great momentum.
Walton's father, Bill, one of the greatest UCLA players ever, wore an Arizona jersey and cheered on the Wildcats as they rallied in the second half of the title game against USC.
The conference tournament toughened the team, the younger Walton said.
"Just winning it, and playing back-to-back games and having to come up even though your body is tired and fight through it," he said. "If you go deep in the NCAA tournament, you're going to be exhausted like we were this past week when we fought through it in the second half of the third game in three nights."
Freshman guard Salim Stoudamire scored a career-high 29 points against USC.
"I said maybe a month ago that Salim Stoudamire doesn't play like a freshman," Olson said. "Against 'SC, he got that 29 points by taking just 10 field goal attempts, and missed one shot, and on that one he got clobbered."
Gardner knows there already is talk of him going against Gonzaga guard Dan Dickau.
"If we end up matching up with them, I'm not going to make it into a Dickau and Gardner matchup," Gardner said. "As long as we go out there and win, that's all I care about."
First, Arizona must get past Santa Barbara, a team Olson expects to try to slow it down and force a halfcourt game. That will put even more emphasis on the 6-foot-8 Walton's passing skills.
"Critical," Olson said. "We get him to open areas so that he can be the primary handler in the halfcourt. At his size, he can see and find people better than the guards can."
Gardner and Walton say their experience of a year ago has already helped.
"It's shown this year at the end of close games, whether they're big or not, we don't really get rattled," Walton said. "When you go as far as that, there's nothing you really aren't ready for. When you run out of that tunnel, there's nothing like that."