Oct. 31, 2002
Heading into the 2001-02 basketball season, the best representation of the Arizona Wildcats may have been a question mark. There were many questions, but no time to wait for answers.
"A year ago at this point, we had only two players who had even played the previous season," explained Arizona head coach Lute Olson. "We just did not know how the freshmen were going to react."
Those freshmen, combined with great performances from a trio of juniors, certainly put forth an effort that made Wildcat fans proud. Not only did the freshmen come through by tallying 42 percent of the offense and 44 percent of the rebounding, but also helped the 2002 Cats win 24 games, capture the 2002 Pac-10 Tournament championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament's "Sweet Sixteen." Not bad for a group of unproven cagers.
Fast forward one year, and oh how things have changed. With the questions from a year ago long since answered, some college basketball pundits are tabbing the 2002-03 edition of the Wildcats as the nation's best team. Olson may not completely agree with that assessment, but he will agree that preparations for this season are moving ahead at a much smoother pace. If only because the 10 letterwinners that return have one thing that last season's roster did not: experience.
"It's certainly is much less stressful knowing what is returning," quipped Olson. "This year, the good thing is that we've got eight guys who participated a year ago, five of them were starters and three were key reserves, along with what we feel is a very outstanding freshman class."
What hasn't changed is Olson's bewilderment with those preseason prognosticators. "It doesn't make sense to me that we surprised a whole lot of people last year, but at the same time, we're probably a little overrated from that standpoint this year," he said. "To be realistic, we have 13 scholarship players in the program and nine of them are freshmen and sophomores. I don't know how realistic it is for people to pick us No.1 when you look at the fact that we are really very young."
Despite the team's relative youth, what does return for the 2002-03 campaign is an experienced roster loaded with depth, ability and, perhaps most valuable of all, leadership. That valued commodity comes courtesy of seniors Jason Gardner, Rick Anderson and Luke Walton. It is the one thing that separates 2003 from 2002.
"I have no concern about our leadership capabilities with the three seniors, two are fifth-year seniors and Jason has started every game since he's been here," said the Hall of Fame head coach. " They did a great job last year. That leadership is more of a given than it was last year. The senior leadership will be outstanding for us."
That senior leadership starts with the team's point guard, Jason Gardner. The 5-foot-10, 191-pound Indianapolis, Ind., product heads into his final year of college basketball as one of the nation's finest point guards. A third-team Associated Press All-American a year ago, Gardner averaged 20.4 points and 4.6 assists in 34 games. He has made 103 starts in 104 career games and has certainly left his mark on the Arizona record book. Gardner is ranked in the Wildcat career top 10 in 10 different statistical categories. Simply put, he is a winner.
"Jason is first and foremost a tremendous competitor," said Olson. "He has been a winner at every level in which he has played. His competitiveness is obvious to everybody that he plays with. You better be playing hard if you're playing alongside Jason Gardner, or he will be in your face."
As has been the case in previous seasons, Gardner is being asked to contribute in different ways. Last year the team needed a scorer, so Gardner upped his average by nearly 10 points per game. Two years ago, the team need a calming influence and a point guard that could keep the ball moving, so he posted a career-best assist:turnover ratio of 2.33:1 and led the team to the 2001 National Championship game. This year, the focus is defense.
"This year, he needs to be more of a factor defensively," explained Olson. "He's got the quickness, he's got the ability, and he's got the strength. How effective you are as a team defensively starts with the point guard being able to stop the ball further out on the court. We know what he can do offensively, we just need him to be more of a factor on defense similar to what Jason Kidd was at California or Gary Payton at Oregon State. Those guards were great guards in college and have been great professionally because they affect the game at both ends of the court. Jason needs to affect the game at both ends of the court."
2001-02 was a breakout season for Luke Walton. The 6-foot-8, 245-pound senior forward posted career-high per game averages of 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists and earned a place on four All-America teams. He became the first frontcourt player to lead the Pacific-10 Conference in assists and passed out more helpers than any other non-guard in the nation. Walton collected the first triple-double of his career Jan. 17 vs. USC and cemented his reputation as one of the best all-around players in the country after earning the Pac-10 Tournament's Most Outstanding Player honors. In those three games in early March, Walton averaged 22.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists in leading the Wildcats to its fourth consecutive conference tournament title.
Even the great ones need room for improvement, and the San Diego native is no different. "Luke needs to improve his assist:turnover ratio," explained Olson. "He is the first non-guard to lead the Pac-10 in assists, but he needs to make the good passes and not try to make the great passes. Luke is the kind of guy that wants to make the great assist and sometimes needs to be more patient in letting that opportunity come to him. He also needs to be more of a factor on the boards, especially offensively. He has good timing, instincts and anticipation, and needs to put that into play."
The third member of UA's senior class is forward Rick Anderson. The 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward shined in his first year as a starter, averaging 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. A factor on the boards, Anderson led the Cats in both offensive (99) and total rebounds (245) a year ago. A deadly outside shooter, the Long Beach, Calif., product showed a knack for hitting big shots last year, as he drained the game-clinching free throws in the season-opening win over No. 2 Maryland and followed that up two nights later with UA's last six points in the win over No. 5 Florida.
Anderson spent the majority of the offseason working on getting stronger to make himself a more imposing defensive presence. That would give him the ability to be influential at both ends of the court.
"Going into the year, Rick's strengths are his shooting and his offensive board work," Olson said. "We need to have a more consistent defensive effort out of him. In the offseason, he has worked very hard on his strength to where he now needs to put a more solid defensive effort on the opposing power forward."
Joining those three is a quintet of talented sophomores helped to propel the Wildcats from enigma to the nation's elite last season. Those five players comprise a quick and versatile bunch with skills at every position. Unique circumstances tested this crew early and often last season. The group combined to average 20 minutes per game in 2001-02, and that experience alone is beneficial.
"Our freshman class from last year is now a year older," said the 30-year head coach. "Salim Stoudamire ended up being the Freshman of the Year in the conference, and Channing Frye made the all-freshman team. In addition to that, we've got Isaiah Fox, who started a number of key games for us last year, Dennis Latimore and Will Bynum, who each gave us important minutes, which makes it a sophomore class that got a lot of playing time last year because of our circumstances. That will only help us this season."
No one was more surprising than Frye. The 6-foot-10 center from Phoenix blossomed into one of the Pac-10's most consistent and most accurate performers. He averaged 9.5 points and 6.3 rebounds while starting 25 of 34 games. Frye finished the season as the league leader in field goal percentage (59.5) and was the only UA player to shoot better than 50 percent a year ago.
He trumpeted his arrival in his first league game with an 18-point, 16-rebound effort in a win at Oregon State on Dec. 20 and took off from there. Frye ranked as UA's second-leading scorer (14.3 ppg) and leading rebounder (7.7 rpg) in the NCAA Tournament and led the team in both categories (19.2 ppg/11.9 rpg) on its 10-game summer tour of Australia. He has also added 13 pounds of muscle to his nearly-seven-foot frame.
"Channing surprised everyone last year," Olson explained. "As a freshman, he probably played more like what we thought he would be later in his sophomore season. Channing has worked very hard on increasing his strength. After being bounced around by people, it was obvious what he needed to do. He's put on weight, and he is a lot stronger than he was last season. He will be a much more confident player this year."
Stoudamire answered any doubts about his abilities with a freshman season that saw him earn Pac-10 Freshman-of-the-Year accolades. The 6-foot-1, 176-pound guard from Portland, Ore., averaged 12.8 points and tallied 434 points in his debut season, the sixth-highest freshman total in school history. He set school records with 39 consecutive free throws made and a 90.4 free throw percentage, which ranked fourth nationally, and shot 45.3 percent from three-point range.
Often overlooked in Stoudamire is a tenaciousness that caused his teammates to name him UA's best defensive player in 2002. That's high praise for any freshman.
"Salim's teammates picked him as our best defender last year, which is really unusual for a freshman," Olson said. "Salim is an outstanding shooter. Last spring in our practices leading up to the Australia trip, he shot the ball as well as anyone we've had here since Steve Kerr. He needs to get his assist:turnover ratio more in line with what it needs to be, and that will come with experience. He had a great freshman year, and we need to make sure that he has a great sophomore year as well."
Another sophomore guard who showed flashes of brilliance last season was Will Bynum. The 5-foot-11, 193-pound fireplug from Chicago is an ultra-talented guard with tremendous potential. He averaged 6.4 points and 1.5 rebounds in 31 games last year and improved those numbers to 12.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in the summer tour of Australia. Improved consistency will go a long way towards helping Bynum reach his potential.
"Will had some really outstanding games for us a year ago," commented Olson. "The important thing with Will is the consistency. When a player has been a huge scorer, as he was in high school, the toughest thing to adjust to is the fact that there are four other really good players on the floor at the same time. He made great strides last year in moving without the ball and on defense. If that keeps up, he will be even better for us this year."
Arizona's most underrated performer last season may have been center Isaiah Fox. The 6-foot-9, 259-pound center averaged 4.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in 2001-02 and earned valuable time as both a starter (nine times) and reserve. The Santa Monica, Calif., product averaged 7.0 points and 5.4 boards in the Cats' key five-game stretch to open the season and was equally as impressive in the postseason. Fox has great hands and a strong work ethic.
"Isaiah continues to work very hard for us," said Olson. "He has such great hands and a big body. With the added year of experience, I see him becoming an even better rebounder and an improved offensive force. Isaiah gives us quite a bit of flexibility at the center position"
Perhaps no Arizona player works harder than forward Dennis Latimore. The 6-foot-7, 238-pound, native of Halstead, Kan., hopes that 2002-03 is his breakout season. After averaging 1.9 points and 2.5 rebounds a year ago, he went about losing 16 pounds and improving his strength and quickness. Latimore may have benefitted more from the Australian trip than any other player. In those 10 games Down Under, Latimore averaged 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds, while shooting 54.5 percent from the floor.
"Dennis is one of the hardest-working guys on the team," quipped Olson. "He's always focused and works very hard every day in practice. He's stronger than he was last year, and he's cut his weight back more than 10 pounds. He needs to be quicker, and I think we'll see that this season."
Two other returning players who make key contributions daily are guards Jason Ranne and Fil Torres. Ranne, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound, native of Tulsa, Okla., has seen his hard work pay off, as the former walk-on earned a scholarship for 2002-03. After not seeing much playing time in his first two seasons, Ranne averaged 4.3 points and 2.5 rebounds on UA's tour of Australia and was one of just three players to post a positive assist:turnover ratio on the trip. He also proved to be active on the glass and a solid defender.
"Jason played very well in Australia," Olson said. "The great thing about Jason Ranne is that he knows his role. He is a great team player, and he really helps us in practice situations. He hasn't seen much playing time, but we know he will perform well when asked."
Torres, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound walk-on, has proven to be another valuable practice player. He saw action in two games last season and launched one field goal attempt. "Fil is another guy who really understands his role," said Olson. "Most people don't see his contributions, but we wouldn't have been successful without his play in practice last season."
The freshman class of 2003 definitely fits the description of quick and athletic. The four players in this group give Arizona the ability to handle the responsibilities on the perimeter, especially defensively, while also controlling the glass.
"In looking back at areas that were a problem for us a year ago, when we hit teams with three quick perimeter players, we either had to go with three guards to try to match up with the quickness at which time we'd get hurt on the boards, or we'd have trouble guarding that third quick guy," explained Olson. "The newcomers give us the flexibility of defensive quickness and some size where the boards should not be a problem when we try to get better match-ups. We didn't have the experience and as much quickness as we're going to have this year."
While Arizona's depth won't make it a necessity for the freshman class to step in and contribute immediately, Olson sees it as a positive that these student-athletes will fight for playing time right away. "The good thing with this freshman class is that they can come in without having the kind of pressure that last year's freshman class had," he said. "Yet, they are the kind of guys who want that pressure."
Hassan Adams, a 6-foot-4, 201-pound guard from Westchester High School in Los Angeles averaged 18.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists as a senior in leading his team to the 2002 California state championship. The Los Angeles Times Player of the Year, Adams also became the first guard since Baron Davis in 1997 to earn California Mr. Basketball honors. He is a powerful and athletic player who is a force at both ends of the court.
"Hassan won the state championship at Westchester," said Olson. "He's all about team... a tremendous athlete with a great attitude and work ethic. He's the kind of guy that is going to work as hard as he can for the good of the team."
Chris Dunn, a 6-foot-6, 170-pound forward from Hobbs, N.M., could be called a diamond in the rough. The first New Mexico prep product on the UA roster since A.J. Bramlett, Dunn comes to Tucson from the basketball powerhouse known as Hobbs High School. As a senior, Dunn averaged 17.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocked shots to earn New Mexico Player-of-the-Year honors.
"Playing in a successful program is nothing new for Chris Dunn," Olson said. "The commitment the kids make to basketball at Hobbs High School is second to none. He is a hard worker and an outstanding athlete, who is very quick off the floor."
Andre Iguodala, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound forward from Springfield, Ill., is a multidimensional player that can play at both ends of the floor. A second-team Parade All-American, Iguodala averaged 23.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists as a senior. The Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year, Iguodala was a member of the bronze-medal-winning 2002 U.S. Men's Junior National team.
"Andre really impressed people when he went to the U.S. Junior National team trials in Colorado Springs and eventually made that team," said Olson. "He opened a lot of eyes. He has tremendous amount of ability and is a great competitor."
Chris Rodgers, a 6-foot-3, 203-pound guard from Portland, Ore., averaged a state-best 26.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists last season. The No. 4 point guard in the country by one recruiting service, Rodgers possesses the ability to play either guard position. He was the Portland Interscholastic League Player of the Year and played in the Jordan Brand Capital Classic in Washington, D.C.
"Chris is an outstanding athlete with a lot of versatility," said Olson. "He's played all three wing spots. He has a good handle and feel for the game."
Not only does this group of four freshmen help Arizona become a quicker and more versatile unit, but the improved depth could pay the biggest dividends. Being able to have strong competition every day in practice was something that was sorely missed last season. The only time the team was really tested came on game day. That will certainly change this season.
"The lack of depth in practice was a real problem for us last year," said Olson. The competition in practice this year will be more of what our guys are accustomed to. The ability to match our best players against each other will really benefit us from a practice standpoint."
All in all, Olson likes the makeup of his 2002-03 Wildcats. A deep and athletic team with strong leadership heads into a 27-game regular-season schedule featuring strong non-conference opposition and the always-challenging Pac-10 slate. Beginning his 20th season in Tucson, Olson has a quick and well-balanced squad.
"I think quickness will be our strength, as will shooting ability," said Olson. "When I talk about shooting ability, I mean at all five positions. I think that we're going to be a good shooting team, and a very well-balanced team. I don't think we'll have to rely on one guy to put up big numbers. The key will be to make sure we're getting a good shot regardless of who's taking it."
While Olson himself heads into the 2002-03 with the new title of Hall of Famer, he knows that the moniker won't be responsible for any victories. "The individual honor of being inducted into the Hall of Fame will not have an impact on us," he explained. "I appreciate the honor tremendously. It's reaching the pinnacle of your profession...the greatest thing that can happen to a coach, but it's not going to put more wins on the ledger. My job is to do the best job that I can in coaching this team. I feel good about our staff and players, and about this season, but we're going to have to work hard to be successful."