ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) - When Salim Stoudamire asked Channing Frye if he wanted to grab lunch one day last fall, the Arizona center was, to be perfectly honest, stunned.
Stoudamire didn't do lunch with his teammates. Or anything else, for that matter. He wasn't one for small talk. You wouldn't find him hanging out in someone's dorm room or apartment, playing video games. And if you saw some of the Wildcats around town, there was no reason to look for Stoudamire because he wouldn't be with them.
He was a loner, and he liked it that way.
``I'm an independent person,'' he said Friday. ``But I knew it was important for me to open up to my teammates so they could develop trust in me and I could develop trust in them.''
As complex personally as he is gifted athletically, Stoudamire realized he needed an attitude adjustment if Arizona was going to live up to its potential. The change hasn't been easy, but Stoudamire has blossomed as a person and a teammate, and he's got the now-tightknit Wildcats where they always thought they should be.
The third-seeded Wildcats (30-6) will play top-seeded Illinois (35-1) on Saturday night in the Chicago Regional, hoping to earn their first trip to the Final Four since 2001.
``I've played on a lot of teams, but this is by far the best chemistry-ed team I think I've ever been on,'' Frye said. ``I don't know if that's the right word, but you can mix and match every single person on the team and no one would have a problem with each other.
``Everyone just likes each other's company,'' Frye said, ``and every day it's very interesting.''
There was never any questioning of Stoudamire's talent. He comes from Portland's first family of basketball; his father and two uncles played at Portland State, brother Antoine played at Georgetown and Oregon, and cousin Damon is now playing for the Trail Blazers after an All-American career at Arizona.
Salim Stoudamire is the career leading scorer in Oregon Class 4A history, with 2,219 points. He leads the nation with 51 percent shooting from 3-point range, and he made an off-balance dazzler with Daniel Bobik in his face to lift Arizona to a 79-78 victory over Oklahoma State on Thursday night.
``That dude's like a video game,'' Illinois guard Dee Brown said. ``He shoots from anywhere, anyplace.''
But his attitude? Well, that was something else.
An intensely private person, he never bonded with his teammates. When coach Lute Olson criticized him, Stoudamire would internalize it, growing even more remote. If he was struggling with his shot, he couldn't let it go and focus on defense or helping his teammates. He'd sulk and mope, making his struggles even worse.
``He had all the skill and ability just as well last year,'' Mustafa Shakur said. ``But sometimes he let things get to him and didn't really take things the right way as far as criticism and things like that coming from Coach. This year, he's really come around.''
It started after last year's tournament, when the Wildcats finished a disappointing 20-10 season with a loss to Seton Hall in the first round. Arizona has been to three Final Fours since 1994, and Stoudamire and Frye wanted to keep that tradition going. To do that, though, the Wildcats needed leadership.
And that meant Stoudamire would have to reach out to his teammates, starting with that lunch invitation to Frye.
``I was like, `Are you joking?' Because Salim usually never goes out to eat,'' Frye said. ``After that, we'd always go out to lunch. Once a month, once a week or something. Just talk about basketball, watch games. We got to learn a lot about each other. Salim's like my brother now.''
Said Olson, ``He's involved in leadership, making sure guys going bowling together, having a tailgate party before football games. The Arizona program has always been a family program ... and it was important Salim understood what the responsibility of a senior is in the program. Last year, frankly, as a junior he wasn't ready for that.''
Stoudamire has had to work at his transformation, though. Olson benched him for Arizona's game at Marquette in December because he didn't like Stoudamire's attitude after he was held to one shot by Utah's box-and-one defense the previous game.
Instead of pouting, though, Stoudamire was his teammates' biggest cheerleader. Since then, he's been a model player. He leads Arizona in scoring, has failed to reach double figures in only four games, and has won three games for the Wildcats on last-second shots.
He's also made his teammates better. Overlooked because of his late-game heroics Thursday night were his seven assists.
``Salim will tell you he was taking Coach's criticism wrong,'' Shakur said. ``His criticism was to push him and make him a better player. But (Salim) took it in negative ways as kind of a personal thing, and it wasn't. He understands that right now and it's made him a better player.''
More importantly, he's become a better person.
``I remember someone asked me, what do you want to be remembered as, as far as Arizona, as far as basketball,'' Stoudamire said. ``I was like, I don't care about basketball. I just want to be remembered as a good person.''