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2006-07 Men's Basketball Outlook
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 10/14/2006
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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             His title says head coach.

            But to hear University of Arizona head coach Lute Olson use words like nucleus, chemistry and depth, one might think that his topic was more science than sporting fare.

            That’s not to say there is no science to success.  There most certainly is a method that leads to March Madness.  All things considered, it’s not that different from the observation, hypothesis, prediction and performance that goes into defining the known world.

            In this case, the world is basketball.

            At this time, this is what Olson knows:

·         Arizona returns 11 players from last season’s team, including 10 letterwinners and four starters.

·         Arizona’s roster posts an average height of 6-foot, 6 inches, and 214 pounds

·         Arizona’s three seniors have appeared in 269 games, including 186 starts.

·         Arizona adds one of the finest three-man recruiting classes in the country.

·         They all seem to like each other.

 

“We have a very good nucleus returning with good experience,” says Olson.  “We’re very pleased with the three freshmen.  This will be a team with the best depth that we’ve had here in a long time.  That depth is not only important in games, but even more important in practice situations because of the competition every day on the court.”

What all of this means is that the 2006-07 edition of the Arizona Wildcats will be a

deep, athletic, experienced, well-led and cohesive unit with a single goal:  to win.  Simply put, Olson likes this club.

It’s that competition that will help the team improve each time it takes the court.  Improvement is key because those that don’t get better may not play all that often.  Games are just a chance to show what has been learned in the lab where only the coaches are watching.

            “My philosophy has always been that you learn the game in practice and you display what you’ve learned in the games,” says the Hall of Fame head coach.

            Three of the Arizona’s four returning starters are seniors in Mustafa Shakur, Ivan Radenovic and Kirk Walters.  The trio has helped the Wildcats win 70 percent of its games over the past three seasons, while combining for 2,054 points and 997 rebounds in that span.

More important than the statistics, however, is the leadership.  Olson believes the leadership will flow freely from this group.

I believe we’re going to have excellent leadership from our seniors both on and off the floor,” he says.  “Mustafa now has had three years running the point and I think he’s going to do a real good job of on-court leadership from the point position.  I think that leadership from the point is critical to the success of any team.”

The 6-foot-3 Shakur returns for his final season with career averages of 9.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists.  He currently stands ninth on the Arizona career assists list with 455.

After flirting with the NBA Draft a year ago, the Philadelphia native has a clear understanding of what will make the Cats a success in 2006-07.

“I think Mustafa really soaked up what he needed to work on,” Olson explained.  “The biggest thing for Mustafa is to play to his strengths.  His work ethic is second to none.  He knows if the team does well, then he’s going to do well.”

            Radenovic, a 6-foot-10 forward from Belgrade, Serbia, averaged 12.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game as a junior, including a 44.8 field goal percentage.  Arguably Arizona’s best player of the last half of 2006, Radenovic averaged better than 16 points and six rebounds over the last 10 games of the season.

            He is a player with the ability to score inside and out.  Most importantly, he’s shown great improvement each year, and Olson expects that to continue as well.

            “Ivan has made great improvements each year that he’s been here,” Olson says.  “I expect that to continue.  He’s a very positive kind of leader.  He will make everyone else better through his play.”

            Walters, UA’s tallest player at 6-foot-11, continues to develop into a productive center.  The Grand Rapids, Mich., native averaged 6.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots per game.  In fact, Walters’ 50 blocked shots last season tied for ninth-best in school history.

            He led the Wildcats with a 58.6 field goal percentage last year, but needs to become far more consistent in his final collegiate campaign.

            “Kirk’s strength is that he plays so hard,” says Olson.  “He’s a very good shooter.  The challenge to him is to come out and give us a solid performance every game.”

            Such solid performances will go a long way toward improving the Wildcat fortunes that saw the squad average 73.7 points per game, the program’s lowest scoring average since 1986.  Chemistry is another factor, and according to Olson, this group genuinely seems to get along.

            “The team chemistry is obviously very, very good,” says Olson, entering his 34th season as a collegiate head coach.  “They get along well.  They all are focused on team.  In the end, the success of the team depends on team chemistry.

            To take that a step further, Olson comments, “When you look at the outstanding teams that we’ve had, the chemistry was critical.”

            One of the catalysts of such chemistry was the program’s three-day, five-game excursion to Vancouver, British Columbia.  The trip, which took place in early September, gave the Cats a jump start on the season with 10 days of practice leading up to the trip.

            A byproduct of posting the 5-0 record on the trip was the fact that 10 of the 12 players on the trip logged better than 17 minutes per game.  Everyone got a chance to play and nearly all left with a boost of confidence.

            “It was a tremendous benefit because it gave us a better chance to evaluate some of the guys,“ Olson says.  “It gave us an opportunity to evaluate everyone and gave guys an opportunity to play more and get into a rhythm.  I think it helped a lot from a confidence standpoint.”

            One of the improvements Olson hopes this bunch of Wildcats make is in its shooting.  A year ago, Arizona made just 44.6 percent (909-of-2,037) of its attempts, the lowest figure in Olson’s 23-year tenure.

            “If you looked at last year’s team, the weakness was consistency in shooting,” Olson says.  “I think this team is going to be a good shooting team.  The longer they play at this level the more they understand what a good shot is and that extra touches lead to better shots.”

            One of the key figures on the perimeter will be junior guard Jawann McClellan.  A 6-foot-4 native of Houston, McClellan returns to health after being limited to just 45 total minutes in 2006.

            In 2004-05, his lone full season of basketball, McClellan shot 46.8 percent from the field and ranked second on the club with 24 treys.  Despite the fact that he missed nearly all of the last season, he will be a welcome addition to the perimeter rotation.

            “Anytime someone has been out of competition, basically for the entire year, rust is always a concern,” Olson explains.  “But a shooter is a shooter.  I think Jawann is a good shooter. It’s like riding a bicycle ?- you never forget.”

            Two other juniors join McClellan in the rotation, Daniel Dillon and Bret Brielmaier.

            Dillon, a 6-foot-4 guard from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, was one of UA’s best players on the trip to Vancouver, averaging a team-best 12.4 points per game, while shooting 56.4 percent fro the field and 52.6 percent from three-point range.

            Production at that clip could quickly shore up Arizona’s perimeter deficiencies.

            “There is no question that the guy who benefited the most from the Canadian trip was Daniel,” says Olson.  “He showed a great deal of confidence and took good shots.”

            Brielmaier is a 6-foot-6 forward from Mankato, Minn., who has gone from walk-on to valued member of the post rotation.  He averaged 1.6 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last season, including career best totals of 10 points and eight rebounds in the NCAA Tournament first round win over Wisconsin.

            More than statistical, Brielmaier’s contributions are measured in court savvy.

            “Bret is valuable to us because he plays so intelligently,” says Olson.  “He understands his role and plays so hard.  He has a great work ethic.”

            A quintet of sophomores certainly adds depth to nearly every position.  Leading the way is forward Marcus Williams.  A 6-foot-7 product of Seattle, Williams averaged 13.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in his debut season a year ago, including a 45.3 field goal percentage.

            He ended the season with six straight games in double figures, including a 24-point, eight-rebound, four-assist performance against Villanova in the NCAA Tournament.  Along the way, Williams was a Pac-10 all-Freshman selection.

            “I think he made really good progress in a lot of different ways,” says Olson.  “The biggest thing for him is not to try to do too much from a scoring standpoint.  He’s going to have an outstanding season.”

            J.P. Prince returns as a contender for point-guard duties.  The 6-foot-6 product of Memphis, Tenn., averaged 2.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game last season.  He passed out a season-best 10 assists against Northern Arizona on Dec. 8.

            “J.P. sees the floor so well,” Olson says.  “He’s such a good passer.  With his length and athletic ability, he could be a factor at both ends of the court.

            Also in the mix Is forward Fendi Onobun.  The 6-foot-6 Houston native gave up his redshirt midway through the 2005-06 season and posted averages of 3.1 points and 1.7 rebounds, while shooting 65.7 percent from the field in 16 appearances.

            Onobun’s solid build and athleticism could make him a match-up problem.

            “Fendi is so strong and so athletic,” says Olson.  “He finishes well around the basket and his perimeter touch continues to improve.”

            Mohamed Tangara is a player who could bolster the Wildcat front line.  The 6-foot-9 forward from Bamako, Mali, continues to work very hard on his game.  He averaged 1.6 points and 1.0 rebounds in 21 appearances last season.

            “Mohamed’s game has improved a lot,” Olson says.  “His touch and his footwork are all better. He’s very aggressive defensively.”

            Walk-on David Bagga, a 6-foot-5 guard from Foothill Ranch, Calif., makes most of his presence felt in practice.  He did tally nine points in 14 games last season.

            “David is a consummate team guy,” says Olson.  “He does what ever he can to make us better.  He’s a great guy to have on our roster.”

            Once again, Arizona welcomes a trio of talented freshmen, who as a group give the squad a number of very versatile performers.

            “We’re very, very pleased with our three freshmen,” he says.  “I like their attitudes about everything.  We’re blessed to have the caliber of person and player of these three young men.”

            Chase Budinger comes to Arizona as one of the most decorated prep players in school history.  The 6-foot-7 forward from Encinitas, Calif., was rated as the No. 7 overall prospect in the country by Bob Gibbons’ All-Star Sports.  Budinger was the co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-America game and the San Diego County male athlete of the year, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

            He averaged 34 points, 11 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game a year ago at LaCosta Canyon High School, and for good measure was the 2006 Mizuno national boys’ volleyball player of the year.

            “The thing that’s so impressive about Chase physically is that he does things with such ease,” Olson quips.  “It doesn’t look like it’s an effort for him to sprint the court.  The other thing that’s great about him is that he’s a team guy.”

            Jordan Hill, a 6-foot-9 forward from Atlanta, Ga., emerged as a key guy in the workouts leading up to Vancouver, where he was the team’s leading rebounder, shot blocker and percentage shooter.

            Jordan is one of the most coachable people that you will run into,” says Olson.  “He?'s tremendously quick off his feet.  He runs the court with ease and he has great timing on the boards and with his shot blocking.”

            Nic Wise, a 5-foot-9 guard from Kingwood, Texas, rounds out the class.  A proven winner, Wise completed his high school career with more wins (131) than any other player in Texas Class 5A history.

            Wise ranked second on the club with a 10.0 points per game average during the tour of Vancouver, including 10 assists and five steals.

            “I like him,” says Olson.  “I like his attitude.  All his team does is win games.”

            As subtle as it seems, Arizona enters the season with three seniors, three juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen.  It’s the first time since 2000-01 that Olson and his charges have enjoyed such balance.  That was also the last time Arizona appeared in the Final Four.

            “For the first time since 2001, we have balance back in the classes.  I think that is important,” Olson says.

            That balance will be put to the test early and often, as the schedule is as difficult as any in the game.  In addition to the challenging Pacific-10 conference slate, the Wildcats face a relentless non-conference slate that games against Virginia, Illinois, Louisville, Memphis and North Carolina.

“The schedule is probably as difficult as any we’ve put together,” Olson says.  “We will be battle tested to say the least.”

Olson is looking forward to his 24th season in Tucson largely due to what he will witness every day in practice ?- the competition.

“I’m excited for these guys to have the kind of competition that they’ll have in practice,” Olson says.  “I’m excited about the depth.  This year we can put a guy in a really competitive situation every day.

“I believe it’s going to be a fun team to coach and a fun team to watch.”

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