The first order of business is simple: to become a better basketball team.
Such improvement starts on the defensive end and requires an intense commitment. And the players have strengthened that commitment each day during preseason conditioning.
"The guys have done a great job in doing the necessary things to get better," said Arizona head coach Lute Olson. "I feel very good about things right now. Theyˇ?ve been working very hard and itˇ?s very positive now."
The focus is now one of continued improvement, especially when it comes to stopping people.
Last season, Arizona allowed opponents to shoot 35.0 percent from three-point range, allowing 260 treys on the season (8.4 per game) ?C the most in school history. Additionally, UA forced fewer turnovers than it committed for the first time in five seasons, which led to a 20-11 finish to the season.
The reasons were many: inexperience, hardship, injury. Whatever the reason, there wasnˇ?t much bite to go with the Wildcatsˇ? growl.
"One of the biggest problems we had last year was that we were starting two freshmen and a sophomore," explained Olson. "Kirk (Walters) was unavailable because of mononucleosis, which was a real problem, and Jawann McClellanˇ?s knees were a concern. Those were two guys that we were counting on who didnˇ?t really deliver the expected contributions."
Relying on such youth can lead to some ups and downs. In UAˇ?s 20 wins last season, opponents averaged less than 69 points per game. Opponents averaged nearly 79 points per game in the 11 defeats.
"Any time you deal with a young team, you are going to deal with defensive problems," said Olson. "Last year it was a case of our inexperience and the loss, essentially, of two starters, that forced us to zone a lot to try to hide the defensive weaknesses. This year we donˇ?t feel we need to do that."
Olson and his staff return 10 letterwinners from a year ago and add six talented newcomers to the mix. The rigors of last season will benefit the 2007-08 Wildcats having created a solid veteran core, while the rookies add to the overall depth.
"Weˇ?ll have much better depth to demand what needs to be done defensively and to be able to count on that depth to have an impact defensively," said Olson. "We should get more intensity from each guy and have individuals playing less minutes.
"This year we have more experience," he continued. "Jordan (Hill) and Chase (Budinger) ended up being starters last year, now they are included in that group of veterans with Jawann, whoˇ?s knees appear to be in the kind of condition where heˇ?s really going to be able to contribute. We have a much better balance between experience and the rookies."
If the defensive intensity is there, it will serve two purposes. Obviously, it will stop the opposition from scoring. Should the pressure be effective, it will also jump-start the offense. That would be a definite positive for a program that has averaged 80.9 points per game over the last seven seasons combined.
"Defense has always been a key part of our offensive game," said the head coach now in his 50th season in the profession. "In terms of steals, breakaways and generating easy buckets, defense does so much to trigger our attack."
Three players with starting experience anchor the veterans, and each has considerable starting experience.
McClellan, a 6-foot-4, 204-pound senior guard from Houston, Texas, averaged 9.6 points per game and led the team with a 37.8 three-point field goal percentage (37-of-98).
McClellan is also in better shape physically, having dropped 10 pounds, which should help his knee problems. Last year, those recurring knee issues limited him to less than 20 minutes per game in the second half of the season.
"Jawann is in as good of shape as heˇ?s even been," said Olson. "I expect him to be available to us in every game, and not every other game as was the case during league play last year. His experience and perimeter ability will be crucial for us."
Budinger, a 6-foot-7, 203-pound forward from Encinitas, Calif., returns after a stellar freshman campaign in 2006-07 that saw him average 15.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. He led the club in three-point field goals (50) and ranked second in steals and third in field goal percentage. For his efforts, Budinger was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.
Not resting on his laurels, Budinger put in a lot of work on his skills and his conditioning in the offseason. The results are evident to his coach.
"Chase worked harder on his game this summer than probably he ever has," Olson said. "Heˇ?s much more physical. Heˇ?s tougher mentally. He was a key guy for us offensively, but this year we feel like he has made great strides defensively."
Hill, a 6-foot-10, 226-pound forward from Atlanta, Ga., was the surprise of the freshman class last season, coming out of nowhere to start the last 12 games. Over his last 10 games, Hill averaged 7.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots, while shooting 67.3 percent (33-of-49) from the floor.
Though still learning the game, Hill has shown the ability to develop quickly since his arrival in Tucson.
"Jordan has worked very hard on his offensive skills," said the UA mentor. "Heˇ?s always run the floor well and rebounded, but this year he will have to be guarded out to 17 feet."
Two freshmen, Jerryd Bayless and Jamelle Horne, will be counted on for immediate contributions. Both join the program as highly accomplished prep performers.
Bayless, a 6-foot-3, 199-pound guard from Phoenix, Ariz., was a four-time first team all-state selection at St. Maryˇ?s High School and was a McDonaldˇ?s All-American. He averaged better than 30 points per game in each of his last two seasons, including 33.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists in leading his team to a runner-up finish at the state tournament. He earned player-of-the-year honors from both the Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune, and his 28.3 ppg average was the highest career scoring average in state history.
Like former Wildcat Jason Gardner, Bayless has the ability to play either the point or the shooting guard position. Regardless of position, the ball will go through Baylessˇ? hands.
"The big thing about Jerryd is that he is a basketball player," Olson said. "With our motion offense, he is going to be in a number of positions for us. Jerryd is a scorer who makes good decisions. He can easily play either guard position."
Horne, a 6-foot-6, 204-pound forward from San Diego, Calif., was an all-state, all-county and all-city pick after averaging 20.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game as a senior. A superb athlete and great defender, Horne compares favorably to former Wildcat Richard Jefferson.
"We believe that Jamelle was the best wingman coming out of the West," said Olson. "He has a great ability to affect the game at both ends of the floor."
Quickness certainly is the forte of this quintet and that will lead to an attacking mindset on offense. "From an offensive standpoint, we are going to open the court up to allow for more penetration," said Olson. "Chase, Jawann and Jerryd are all good at getting the ball to the basket. It will be one of our focuses offensively. We have good quickness and we have guys that can put it on the floor and get to the basket."
Additionally, Bayless gives the Cats another weapon on the perimeter if necessary, which would help Budnger and McClellan, who combined for 87 treys in 2006-07.
"Jerryd, Chase and Jawann are very consistent perimeter shooters and we are going to make sure that we get a good percentage of our shots from those guys," the head coach said.
Four more returning players figure into the top rotation, as seniors Bret Brielmaier, Daniel Dillon, Walters and sophomore Nic Wise should see quality minutes this season.
Brielmaier, a 6-foot-7, 237-pound senior forward from Mankato, Minn., saw action in 22 games last season, averaging 1.7 points and 1.9 rebounds. Had it not been for a knee injury in January, Brielmaier would have set career highs in most categories. Still, he averaged a career-best 10.7 minutes per game and shot 51.9 percent (14-of-27) from the floor. Even so, itˇ?s the little things that keep him in the rotation.
"Bret probably has the best work ethic on the team," said Olson. "He understands the game and knows his role. You know heˇ?ll do good things when he is out there."
Dillon, a 6-foot-3, 197-pound senior guard from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, should fill the role as a defensive stopper on the perimeter. He averaged 1.9 points per game last season and connected on 34.6 percent of his three-point attempts and was named Best Defensive Player by his teammates.
"Daniel has shown the ability to be productive at both ends," said Olson. "With his experience, he will help settle things in the backcourt."
Walters, a 6-foot-11, 247-pound center from Grand Rapids, Mich., returns for his fifth year of eligibility after playing a scant three minutes last year while dealing with the aftereffects of mononucleosis. In his 80-game career, the senior has averaged 3.4 points, and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 54.8 percent (103-of-188) and registering 71 blocked shots. His presence will help the Wildcat frontcourt.
"Having Kirk back is going to help us because he is a veteran performer in the post," Olson said. "His shot blocking and rebounding will be a key for us defensively."
Wise, a 5-foot-10, 178-pound, sophomore guard from Houston, Texas, could see a much greater role than the one last year that saw him average just 8.2 minutes per game. Heˇ?s dropped more than 20 pounds since the end of last season and regained much of the quickness that was lacking last season.
"From the end of last year to the start of this year, Nic is easily our most improved sophomore," Olson commented. "Heˇ?s dropped 20 pounds and is much quicker. He still has the attributes of getting the ball ahead, finding the open man, and he can shoot the ball. Now he has the ability to affect the game with his defense."
Adding Wiseˇ?s rediscovered quickness to an already explosive backcourt will help at both ends. Olson mentioned above that Wise will be stronger defensively, but it will allow the Cats to run a two-pronged offensive attack.
"For example, if he and Jerryd are together, whoever gets the outlet pass is going to bring it," explained Olson. "Really, they both are point guards who can play together, and love to play together. Nic and Jerryd on the court together make us a much quicker team."
A trio of juniors will bolster the Wildcat depth in a number of places.
Fendi Onobun, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound forward shot 55 percent from the field in 14 appearances a year ago, averaging 1.9 points and 1.1 rebounds. Look to the glass and in a defensive stance to find the primary contributions from this Houston, Texas, native.
"Fendi has really worked hard," said Olson. "What we need out of Fendi is defense and rebounding. Whatever offense he can give us through his offensive rebounding will be very beneficial."
Mohamed Tangara, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward from Bamako, Mali, saw action in 12 games last season. Said Olson, "Mohamed continues to develop. I believe he can he can be a force on the boards for us."
David Bagga, a 6-foot-5, 182-pound guard from Foothill Ranch, Calif., is the scout team leader. He made the most of his seven appearances last year, knocking down both field goal attempts.
"David is a good guy to have around because he does everything he can to help make us better," Olson said. "Heˇ?s a team guy."
Besides the aforementioned Bayless and Horne, Olson expects big things from the newcomers. Alex Jacobson, Zane Johnson and Laval Lucas-Perry each bring needed skills to the roster. Walk-on Lucas Spencer will aid in practice situations as well.
Jacobson, a 6-foot-11, 243-pound center from Santa Ana, Calif., averaged 13.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game last year in helping Mater Dei High School to the California Division II state title. Since joining the program, Jacobson has impressed the staff with his work ethic.
Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 199-pound guard from Phoenix, Ariz., is an outstanding shooter who connected on 44 percent of his three-point attempts and averaged 23.6 points and 7.8 rebounds at Thunderbird High School. He was an all-state honoree last year.
Lucas-Perry, a 6-foot-3, 189-pound guard form Grand Blanc, Mich., enters the program as an all-state performer in both football and basketball. He averaged 21.0 points and 8.0 rebounds as a senior and was the most valuable player in the Michigan High School All-Star Game.
"We will definitely get help from the freshman class," said Olson. "Laval was an all-state two-sport star who brings a lot of toughness. Zane is best known for his shooting touch. Alex has been here most of the summer and has worked very hard on conditioning and fundamentals and is probably the most pleasant surprise of the class."
Spencer, a 6-foot-5, 187-pound junior guard from Yuma, Ariz., joins the program as a walk-on after spending the previous two seasons at Grayson County College in Denison, Texas. Like Bagga, he will make most of his contributions in practice situations.
"If" is always a big word in the preseason. And if the variables fall together like Olson envisions, then the 2007-08 campaign should prove to be an entertaining and successful one. But it wonˇ?t be without hurdles.
This yearˇ?s non-conference schedule includes road games with Kansas, Illinois, UNLV, Memphis and Houston. Virginia, Texas A&M and San Diego State highlight the home portion of the slate before the Wildcats jump into the always-challenging Pac-10 double round robin.
"There is no question this team will be challenged by this schedule," said Olson. "But I believe that this team will be up to that challenge. They will be ready to get after it."