Great teams are forged in practice. In those situations where the gym is empty and the best competition comes from a guy with the same uniform. Some of the most memorable games of the season may actually take place long before the likes of Stanford, Oregon or UCLA ever come to Tucson.
Such will be the case for the Arizona men’s basketball team in 2004-05. With 10 returning players and a handful newcomers, depth won’t be a problem. Neither will the competition...in practice.
“One of the strengths of the program has been that good depth creates a great practice situation with good everyday competition,” said head coach Lute Olson. “You learn the game in practice. You really just display what you’ve done, and what you can do, in games. Practices are key and I think our practices are going to be very intense (this year).”
It’s rare that a 20-10 season and a 20th-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance could be seen as a disappointment. But those are the expectations for one of the nation’s elite programs. Depth was certainly a key factor in last season’s inconsistencies.
“The biggest problem was that when we got a big guy in foul trouble we really didn’t have a replacement in there,” said Olson. “This year we are going to have the best depth we’ve had in some time.”
Just how deep will this team be? Deeper than the 1998 and 2003 clubs that advanced to the NCAA West Regional Finals. It’s even deeper than the 1997 team that won the national championship and the 2001 team that finished as the NCAA Tournament runner-up. Wildcat fans may have to think back to 1994-95 to find a team that was as deep and as experienced as the 2004-05 edition. As was the case back in 1995, this season’s team could easily get strong contributions from 10 or more players.
“I think we have good athleticism,” Olson said. “We have experience. We have shooters and we’re going to be a very strong rebounding team, which we weren’t last year. We had a hard time keeping teams from scoring last year. One of the strengths of this program over the years has been a consistently tough defensive performance. We were just inconsistent last year. Depth was an issue, but we weren’t physical enough either.”
That should change this season as Olson and the coaching staff welcome back 10 squadmen from last season and bring five talented newcomers into the fold.
“I think this team could be really, really good,” commented Olson. “Two things hurt us last year. First was the lack of leadership. Second was the lack of depth, especially in the frontcourt. This year we will have senior leadership and depth at every position. We lacked leadership last year, and that’s what leaders are all about ?- developing chemistry and getting guys on the same page. We will have that this season.”
Leading the way into the 101st season of Arizona basketball will be a trio of seniors in Channing Frye, Salim Stoudamire and Matt Brase. The group has combined for more than 2,500 career points and played in 200 games.
“We’re excited about the prospects for this season, said Olson. “We should have good leadership with the return of Channing and Salim, who have been three-year starters for us.”
Frye, a 6-foot-11, 248-pound center from Phoenix, continues to develop into one of the nation’s finest centers. An all-Pac-10 and National Association of Basketball Coaches all-District 15 pick a year ago, Frye averaged 15.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, while shooting better than 54 percent from the field.
Blessed with good range on his jump shot and the athletic ability to move and face the basket, Frye has turned into a multifaceted center. While his aforementioned 54.8 percent field goal shooting is a plus, it was his league-leading 2.1 blocks per game average that speaks to his real value in 2004-05.
“Channing has turned himself into a very productive player,” explained Olson. “We need him to be a more consistent force at both ends of the court, especially on the defensive end with his shot blocking and rebounding.”
A 6-foot-1, 179-pound guard from Portland, Ore., Stoudamire has long been known as one of the best outside shooters in Arizona history. He enters his senior campaign ranked third on the UA career three-point field goals list with 222 and trails only the legendary Steve Kerr in career three-point field goal percentage (.436).
Stoudamire averaged a career-best 16.3 points per game in 2003-04, while shooting 45.2 percent from the floor and scoring 20 or more points 10 times. He was an honorable mention all-Pac-10 and second-team NABC all-District 15 pick last season. Perhaps the best news is that Stoudamire has put a lot of work into his leadership skills in preparation for this year.
“There is no question that Salim is an outstanding shooter,” Olson said. “We expect him to be very good for us on the court this season. But I’ve been very pleased with Salim’s efforts as a leader on this team up to this point and expect that to continue.”
Brase, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound forward from Tucson, averaged 1.0 points and 0.4 rebounds per game in 11 appearances last season. A team-first player who makes most of his contributions in practice situations, Brase and Olson make up the only grandson-grandfather combination in NCAA Division I basketball.
“Matt has been a great addition to the program because he does whatever he can to make us better,” said Olson. “He’s just a good team guy.”
Also back in 2004-05 are a trio of juniors who certainly will add to the depth and productivity both on the perimeter and on the frontline.
Chief among them is Hassan Adams. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound guard from Los Angeles will move back to his more comfortable swingman position after playing power forward much of last season. Not that it hurt his productivity, as he posted career-best averages of 17.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game last season.
Along the way, he picked up all-conference and all-region accolades from Basketball Times and the NABC. He also helped USA Basketball win the gold medal at the 2004 World Championship for Young Men Qualifying Tournament in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
“We’ll be fine on the wing because we’ll move Hassan out there and that’s really where he needs to play for his future,” Olson said. “He had a great summer with USA Basketball and has really improved his jump shooting. Hassan will be a key for us.”
Also back and expected to make big contributions is forward Isaiah Fox. A 6-foot-9, 263-pound product of Santa Monica, Calif., Fox has returned from knee surgery in the best shape of his career. His presence will go a long way towards shoring up the Wildcat frontline.
One of the most experienced Wildcats, Fox has played in 66 career games (14 starts) and averaged 4.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game in those appearances. He averaged 8.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in 2003-04, including his first career double-double, before suffering the injury to his left knee during the second game of the season.
“Isaiah has come back from surgery in the best shape of his life,” Olson explained. “Just having him back gives us so much more depth and versatility on the frontline, not to mention help with leadership. It will be good to have him back and contributing for us.”
Arguably Arizona’s finest defender, Chris Rodgers returns for an ever-expanding role as part of the perimeter rotation. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound guard averaged 8.6 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 30 games last season (five starts). A solid outside shooter, who ranked sixth in the Pac-10 last year with a 42.2 three-point field goal percentage, Rodgers also knocked down 84.5 percent of his free throws.
“Chris has the quickness and strength to cause a lot of problems on defense,” said Olson. “He also has the type of offensive skills to fill a Jason Terry-type role for us. Chris could be a real spark off the bench.”
Led by point guard Mustafa Shakur, four sophomores logged key minutes last season and will be counted on in 2004-05.
Shakur, a 6-foot-3, 183-pound native of Philadelphia, hit the ground running last season and handled the point guard with relative ease. In earning Pac-10 all-Freshman honors, Shakur averaged 9.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. He posted a positive assist:turnover ratio (1.59) and shot 53.3 percent from the floor and better than 46 percent from three-point range.
As a testament to his ability to distribute the ball, Arizona was 15-2 when he passed out five or more assists. All told, it was a solid season for just the fourth freshman in the Lute Olson era to handle the majority of the point guard duties. Like Adams, Shakur was a part of USA Basketball’s gold medalist World Championship for Young Men Qualifying team.
Based on that experience, Olson expects an ever-improving Shakur to be sterling as a sophomore.
“I don’t think there is any question that Mustafa will be a much better player this season,” the Hall of Fame head coach said. “From a leadership and decision-making standpoint, I think you’ll see a much more assertive and comfortable player out on the court. He’s had a great summer.”
Another player who made an impact last season was forward Ivan Radenovic. The 6-foot-10, 221-pound native of Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, joined the team at midseason and averaged 5.8 points and 2.9 rebounds per game in 23 games played.
He made his debut on Dec. 28 vs. Liberty and responded with 17 points, the third-highest freshman debut in the Lute Olson era. From that point, he warranted enough attention to earn honorable mention Pac-10 all-Freshman accolades. The year of experience will aid Radenovic immensely.
“The biggest improvement you see in a player comes between his freshman and sophomore seasons,” said Olson. “Ivan is a much more confident, much more comfortable player now and you will see that in his play. He has great range on his jumper and is a good passer.”
Six-foot-10 Kirk Walters gives the Wildcats another quality frontline player. The center from Grand Rapids, Mich., added 21 pounds of muscle to his frame (now 233 pounds) and looks to build on a productive freshman campaign that saw him average 0.9 points and 0.8 rebounds in 24 games played.
“Kirk has so much potential,” Olson explained. “He’s such a hard worker, which you can see from the weight he added this summer, and will benefit greatly from going against Channing, Isaiah and Ivan in practice situations. We’re very pleased with his progress.”
Beau Muhlbach is an outstanding athlete with a reliable jumper who can help the team in practice and game situations. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound sophomore from Lufkin, Texas, will definitely push the perimeter guys for playing time.
“Beau is a quality guy to have in this program,” said Olson. There is no substitute for quality depth, and he is someone who works hard every time he steps on the court.”
Despite the fact that 10 of the 16 players on the roster are underclassmen, this will not be a rebuilding year. Olson feels like last season’s shortcomings have been addressed and the newcomers will only spice up the mix with even more athleticism and flexibility.
“It’s definitely not a rebuilding year,” said the UA mentor, set to begin his 22nd year in Tucson. “We have everyone back with the exception of Andre (Iguodala). Plus, the guys we’ve got coming in are going to be ready to help us right away. We have good flexibility with those guys. It seems like everyone can play multiple positions.”
This explosive group of five newcomers, who should be ready to step in and contribute, could turn the 2004-05 edition of the Wildcats into an ultra-exciting group.
“There are some young guys, but the good thing is that they are physically ready to play,” said the veteran head coach. “I think every guy that’s coming in is ready to help us. It will just be a matter of how well they fit in with the team.”
Heading up the freshman class is 6-foot-4, 214-pound guard Jawann McClellan. Ranked as the No. 36 overall prospect and the No. 10 shooting guard in the nation by theinsidershoops.com, he was also named Player of the Year by the Houston Chronicle.
An outstanding scorer with great instincts for the game, McClellan, who might be the program’s best pure scorer since Michael Dickerson (1994-98), averaged 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists as a senior for Houston’s Charles H. Milby High School.
“Jawann will give us another proven outside shooter,” said Olson. “He’s also a very athletic player who can help us on the boards. He also takes the ball to the basket very aggressively.”
Mohamed Tangara, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward from Bamako, Mali, averaged 13.0 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocked shots for Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C. Ranked as the No. 38 overall prospect and No. 11 power forward by theinsidershoops.com, he is a warrior on the boards who was signed during the November early signing period.
He takes pride in doing the little things, runs the floor very well and has a strong defensive presence, the coach claims. Tangara’s strong work ethic and outstanding character are welcome additions to the program.
“Mohamed Tangara is going to provide us with a lot of help on the boards,” Olson said. “His aggressiveness and physical stature will be very beneficial to us.”
Guard Daniel Dillon is the sleeper of the freshman class. Signed during the November early signing period, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Dillon is a skilled ballhandler with the ability to play both guard positions. He possesses great mental toughness and fits very well into UA’s up-tempo system.
The native of Hampton, Victoria, Australia, averaged 23.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game as a senior at North Laurel High School in London, Ky. A strong rebounder, Dillon is very physical and can play above the rim.
“Daniel Dillon makes us very deep at the guard position,” said Olson. “He has really impressed his teammates with outstanding passing and board play.”
Six-foot-4, 190-pound swingman Jesus Verdejo comes to Tucson ranked as the No. 23 overall prep school prospect by hoopscooponline.com. A proven winner with the ability to play multiple positions, Verdejo will definitely make the perimeter positions stronger.
He is a solid outside shooter with a strong mid-range game and a member of the Puerto Rican Junior National Team. He attended The Winchendon School in Winchendon, Mass., as a fifth-year prep player last year and averaged 22.9 points per game in helping the squad to a 32-5 record and New England Preparatory School Athletic Council championship.
“Jesus has the additional maturity that was afforded him in his year of prep school,” Olson explained. “He’s also played two years as a starting guard on the Puerto Rican Junior National Team. He is a good scorer and an aggressive defender. We were lucky to get a player of his caliber so late in the recruiting season.”
A walk-on rounds out the roster and comes with impressive credentials. Bret Brielmaier, a 6-foot-6, 214-pound freshman forward from Mankato, Minn., was the 2004 Minnesota Class A Player of the Year after averaging 20.5 points, 13.4 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots for Loyola High School.
“Bret is a solid player with excellent fundamentals,” said Olson. “I think he has the potential to develop into a very nice player. He really understands the game and is a quality addition to the program.”
How well the pieces fall into place is still in question. But one factor is certain: this team will be challenged by its schedule. In addition to the always-difficult Pac-10 slate, Arizona opens the season in the Preseason N.I.T and has road games with Virginia, Mississippi State and Marquette. Wyoming, Utah and Manhattan will also be making appearances in McKale Center.
Additionally, the 20th edition of the Fiesta Bowl Classic presented by Bank One features Butler, Eastern Washington and Richmond, three NCAA Tournament teams from 2004. All in all, it will be a nice test for the charges.
“We’ll play a very challenging non-conference schedule, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone,” said Olson. “We’ve always played a tough schedule because I feel that it is the best way to prepare for conference play and the postseason.”
The schedule hasn’t soured Olson’s outlook. “I like this team,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be rebuilding. I think we’ve plugged some holes and added some quality depth. It’s going to make a huge difference. I’m excited about the team. I know that all of the players and staff are excited about getting started.”
There is no doubt that depth will play a key role in the success of the 2004-05 Wildcats. Olson and his staff definitely feel more comfortable with a full complement of capable student-athletes. According to the coach, there is no substitute for the competition in practice.
“I think there is a tendency to underrate the depth when you say you are going to seven or eight guys,” explained Olson. “To get those seven or eight guys ready to play at a top level, you need to have day-to-day competition. That’s what gives you ?'game depth.’ The competition will be a big motivator this year. We’re going to get the best from these guys.”
Even early on, Olson is seeing dividends. “I love the chemistry of this team,” he said. “These guys hardly do anything as individuals. They do almost everything as a team. It’s going to pay off in the competition on the practice court. It’s going to pay off in people accepting their roles. The chemistry is outstanding.”
It’s that kind of chemistry that makes it easy to come to work ?- especially for a head coach with a list of accomplishments that practically outnumbers his career victories.
“I enjoy the contact with the players,” Olson said. “I love to teach. It’s the kind of closeness that comes with working with these kids on a daily basis. Some years are more challenging than others. That’s the fun part of coaching ?- seeing if you can get everybody playing their absolute best, not just the best players, but everyone.”
Based on Olson’s description, 2004-05 could be a season to remember. Regardless, it will be entertaining.
“I think it’s going to be a team that is fun to watch,” concluded Olson. It’s an aggressive, tough-minded group. Some of the newcomers that we’ve got are going to add to that toughness. It will be a really good year for Wildcat basketball.”