Arizona Men's Basketball 2000-01 Outlook
When a team returns 99.991 percent of its scoring from the previous season, finishes with a 27-7 record and a share of its conference title, expectations tend to run a tad high. Such is the case in Tucson, as the University of Arizona men's basketball team prepares for the 2000-01 season with five returning starters, plus one who was in the starting lineup 19 times, three top reserves and two incoming freshmen expected to provide immediate help.
Last season, the Wildcats shared the Pacific-10 Conference title with Stanford, finishing with a 15-3 league record, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament second round as the No. 1 seed in the West Region.
Lute Olson has a full compliment of stars in the lineup again this season, and the head coach said everyone has very high hopes for the Wildcats this season. Olson, who reached the 600-win plateau with the Wildcats' win over Stanford on Jan. 8, said the key for Arizona this season will be to stay healthy, something that was a problem last year.
"There are going to be a lot of very high expectations for us this year, but that is what we expect when we are bringing back this many people," Olson said. "The big thing that we are going to need to do is to stay healthy this year. Last year was a disaster for us in terms of the number of big injuries we had. For us to be as good as we can be, we need to have Loren (Woods) and everyone else healthy."
Woods, the 1999-2000 Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year and a first team All-Pac-10 honoree, missed the last eight games of the season with a back injury. He suffered a compression injury to a disc in his lower back that required two surgeries in April to correct the problem.
Woods began practicing again in July and has continued his weight training and conditioning. Last year, he established himself as one of the premier centers in the collegiate game, leading the Wildcats with 15.6 points per game. He also set a UA single-season record for blocked shots with 102, breaking Anthony Cook's 1988-89 record of 84.
Woods, who announced March 30 that he would return to UA for his senior season, averaged 7.5 rebounds per game, to rank second on the team, notched eight double-doubles and a triple-double (16 points, 14 blocks, 10 rebounds) Feb. 3 against Oregon. His 14 blocked shots in the game tied an NCAA record, and his triple-double was the first by an Arizona player since Damon Stoudamire accomplished the feat in 1995.
"Loren is as important to us offensively as he is on the defensive end," said Olson. "He can pass and shoot the ball, and his biggest contribution to us came when at the offensive end with some of his skills there. He has made a good recovery so far, and is really ahead of schedule with his rehab."
The 7-foot-1 center is joined by power forward Michael Wright to form the most fearsome frontcourt in the nation. Wright's consistent dominance of the paint -- he scored in double figures 27 times during 1999-2000 -- has helped him emerge as one of the top power forwards in the nation.
At 6-foot-7, 238 pounds, the junior has led the Wildcats in rebounding for the last two seasons, pulling down an average of 8.7 boards per game last year, and was the team's No. 2 scorer with a 15.5 ppg mark in 1999-2000. Wright has also started 57 consecutive games for the Wildcats and has 25 double-doubles in 63 career games.
"Michael has become more of a defensive presence for us, as well as being a great rebounder," said Olson. "He has become more active offensively, too, and has become very good at facing up to the basket and playing opponents that way."
Junior forward Richard Jefferson will be another Wildcat looking to make his mark this season, after being hampered by an injury last year. The 6-foot-7 swingman missed 13 games during the Pac-10 season with a fractured right foot suffered in the Jan. 8 game at Stanford. He underwent surgery Jan. 11 to fix the fracture in his foot, and then came back to play for the first time against Oregon State, March 2.
Jefferson had been the team's leading scorer with a 12.2 ppg clip entering Pac-10 play. Though he was slowed in his first three games back, Jefferson looked like he was back to his old self in the Wildcats' win over Stanford on March 9 at the McKale Center, scoring 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting off the bench to spark Arizona to an 86-81 win.
"Richard's ability level is outstanding," Olson said. "He has a very good game inside, and he can play well outside. We are going to look to him for more consistency both offensively and defensively this year. We want him to get more off the boards, and really be a defensive presence for us."
Much of Arizona's success last season could be attributed to the quick development of two freshmen guards, pointman Jason Gardner and off-guard Gilbert Arenas. This season, the sophomores will be looked upon for even more dynamic output, both on offense and defense.
"It is going to make a big difference this year, having (last year's) freshmen with all of the experience that they have now," Olson said. "Some of the things you don't learn without the experience factor, and due to the injuries and other factors last season, those guys got a lot of time in pressure situations."
Gardner, a 5-foot-10 product of North Central High School in Indianapolis, was handed the starting point guard spot before he reached campus and responded with a stellar debut. He was named National Freshman of the Year by the United States Basketball Writers' Association, Basketball Times, Basketball News and by Dick Vitale on ESPN.com. Gardner averaged 12.6 ppg, 4.8 assists per game and 3.7 rpg and was a key perimeter defender for the Wildcats, as well. This season, Arizona's coaching staff wants to see his three-point numbers improve from last year's 70-of-193 (.363).
"We are looking for Jason to become even more of a 3-point threat than he was last year for us," said Olson. "There are three things that we are looking for from him this year We hope his (3-point) numbers are over 40 percent, that he's more vocal, and, now that he's had a year in the system, that he uses his defensive strengths and quickness to improve on that end."
Arenas was also one of the top freshmen in the nation last season, as the 6-foot-3 North Hollywood, Calif., native averaged 15.4 ppg, third on the team, from the two-guard spot. A relatively unheralded prospect out of high school, Arenas blossomed into an All-Pac-10 Freshman Team member, who also averaged 4.1 rpg and 2.1 steals per game. Arenas, who was also the MVP of the Preseason NIT, scored in double figures in 31 of 34 games, including the final 19 of the season. He finished with 523 points and was the second freshman to exceed the 500-point plateau in a season (Coinel Norman, 576, 1972-93).
"Gilbert had a great freshman year for us, but I think that we see the biggest improvements in players between their freshmen and sophomore years," Olson said. "Gilbert is going to understand the game better this year, and we are looking for him to be more consistent from 3-point range."
Arizona appeared to be in serious trouble last season when injuries relegated Jefferson and Woods to the bench for 13 and eight games, respectively. However, the solid contributions by several bench players helped ease the potential problem, especially with the solid play of forward/center Justin Wessel and forward Luke Walton in the starting lineup.
Wessel, a 6-foot-8 inch, fifth-year senior, showed his experience in replacing Woods in the starting lineup for the six of the final eight games of the year. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native averaged 3.5 ppg and 3.4 rpg last year and scored a sesson-high 12 points against UCLA in the win at McKale Center. His veteran leadership - he is one of three players on the team remaining from the 1997 NCAA Championship team - is also a vital part of the Arizona roster.
"Justin stepped up big in Loren's absence last year, and he was much more competitive defensively in those games than he had been in the past," Olson said. "Justin has shown outstanding progress in the past couple of years, adding a scoring presence and improving defensively."
One of the most pleasant surprises of the 1999-2000 season was the development of Walton, then a redshirt freshman. The 6-foot-8 San Diego product was inserted into the starting three-man position after Jefferson's injury and finished the season as the team's top assist man in Pac-10 games. Walton's soft hands and superior knowledge of the game helped him finish with 101 assists (5.6 apg) in Pac-10 competition and 131 (3.9 apg) for the season. He developed into a more complete offensive player as the season wore on, finishing with a 5.7 ppg average and 4.1 rpg mark.
"Luke is a vital cog to our team because of everything that he does for us," Olson said. "He has a great passing ability and has a very important size advantage for us at the three spot. Offensively, he has developed further because of Richard's injury. He is more of a 2-point scorer, and we are looking for him to improve on his overall shooting percentage (35.3% in 1999-2000)."
The Wildcats also return the team's sixth-man from two years ago, forward Eugene Edgerson. One of the most physical players in the nation, the redshirt senior has endeared himself to McKale Center fans with his tenacious rebounding and post play. Last year, the 6-foot-6 New Orleans native showed his softer side as he redshirted the season to student teach in a kindergarten class to fulfill his requirements and graduate in May 2000 with a degree in elementary education. As the No. 1 post player off the bench in 1998-99, Edgerson averaged 5.2 ppg and 4.8 rpg.
"Gene has a physical presence and mental toughness that we lacked last year, so he is really going to be a boost for us this year," Olson said. "Coming off his redshirt year, it is going to be a real challenge for him to find his game and rhythm."
The third member of this year's team with an NCAA title ring and two Pac-10 Championships under his belt is former walk-on John Ash, a 5-foot-10 guard who has been the back-up point each of the last two seasons. Ash started the Washington game on Jan. 15, the first of his career and first by an Arizona walk-on since 1982, playing nine minutes without a turnover. Ash, a life-long Tucson resident, has honed his game in Arizona practices against the likes of All-Americans Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Jason Terry, as well as Gardner, last year's National Freshman of the Year.
Another player who saw considerably increased playing time because of the injury situations was guard/forward Rick Anderson. Now a junior, the 6-foot-8 inch Anderson will again be a key reserve for the Wildcats at the two and three positions. Anderson averaged 4.5 ppg and 2.2 rpg last season, finishing the year with one of the best games of his career, scoring 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting to go with three blocks against Wisconsin.
"Rick got a lot more opportunities after the injury to Richard," Olson said. "He is tremendously competitive, and has become a good shooter. Rick is making good progress and is going to be a key contributor for us this year."
Senior Lamont Frazier spent most of last season out of the lineup with a medical condition, but will return to action this season as a back-up at the point and two-guard positions. In seven games last year, the transfer from Lon Morris Junior College in Texas scored four points and had eight assists.
Two other walk-ons to the Arizona program provided excellent practice support last season, especially in the wake of numerous injuries. Redshirt freshman Michael Schwertley will see action this season as a reserve wing player. Sophomore Russell Harris, who played in three games last year, will back-up at the guard positions.
The Wildcat coaching staff once again raided Southern California and took two of the area's top players during the spring signing period. Guard Travis Hanour and forward/center Andrew Zahn are expected to step in and contribute immediately as freshman.
Hanour, who prepped at Laguna Beach (Calif.) High School, is a 6-foot-5 player with the capabilities to play either the point or the two-guard positions. As a senior, Hanour averaged 26 ppg and 10 rpg as an All-California Interscholastic Federation performer.
"Travis is a real basketball junkie whose size allows him to play a couple of different positions," said Olson. "I said last year with Gilbert that we thought he was the best-kept secret in Southern California, and I think that is the same thing with Travis."
Zahn, a 6-foot-10 product of Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, Calif., will be one of the primary post back-ups, as well as a tall body for Woods to go up against in practice. As a senior, Zahn averaged 17.2 ppg and 11 rpg, while earning All-CIF honors.
"Andrew is a very good passer and has a nice shooting touch," Olson said. "He is a real hard-nosed kid who doesn't back off from anything."
Freshman walk-on Jason Ranne, a 6-foot-4 guard from Tulsa, Okla., will also add depth in the backcourt for the Wildcats. As a senior at Bishop Kelley High School, Ranne averaged 18.5 ppg and 10 apg.
As always, the Wildcats field one of the toughest schedules in Division I basketball. Arizona will play at least 13 games against teams that were in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, with the potential to play several more during in-season tournaments.
Arizona opens its non-conference slate at the Maui Invitational Nov. 20-22 with six other teams who competed in the NCAA Tournament last season. From there, the Wildcats return to the mainland for a game against Purdue at the Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis.
After that, the Wildcats host Gonzaga before traveling to Storrs, Conn,. for a match-up against the 1999 NCAA Champion, Connecticut. Arizona then plays Illinois at the United Center in Chicago before a home game against Louisiana State. The Wildcats then play host to Butler, Louisiana-Lafayette and Mississippi State in the Bank One Fiesta Bowl Classic on Dec. 28-30.
Arizona will face its yearly challenges from the Pac-10 Conference schedule, as well as a home game in January against Texas. The Wildcats begin defense of their Pac-10 title at home against Cal and Stanford in early January.
"I think that Stanford and Arizona are going to be looked at as the two favorites in the Pac-10," Olson said. "After that, Cal will be good, and USC and UCLA have a lot of talent, as well."