Talent-laden Wildcats aim for national crown

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

TUCSON, Ariz. -- With everybody back, and an outstanding group of freshmen, this Arizona team might be coach Lute Olson's best.

The Wildcats are so deep in talent, that Olson plans to do something he's always wanted to do in his three decades as a major college basketball coach -- clamp on a pressing defense for every minute of every game.

''We've never had the depth of athleticism that we have on this team,'' the 68-year-old coach said Tuesday at the team's media day.

There is the leadership of seniors Luke Walton, Jason Gardner and Rick Anderson. Five sophomores who filled big roles last year return -- Channing Frye, Salim Stoudamire, Isaiah Fox, Dennis Latimore and Will Bynum. And there are four of the country's top freshmen -- Hassan Adams, Andre Iguodala, Chris Rodgers and Chris Dunn.

''I think our teams have always been fun to watch, but this year we'll try to create even more havoc on the defensive end of the court,'' Olson said. ''I think we go deep enough that we can do that at every position.''

Just two years ago, the Wildcats lost four starters from a team that lost to Duke in the NCAA championship game. That team was a preseason No. 1, but struggled through NCAA penalties, an injury to Walton and the death of Olson's wife from cancer before regrouping to make a run at the title.

A preseason No. 1 ranking for this team is a strong possibility.

''Just a couple of years ago we had the same expectations so I'm used to all that,'' Walton said. ''I don't think it's going to be an extra burden on this team. We're into just having fun and playing basketball as s much as we can. We're not going to let the hype get to us.''

The even-tempered presence of Walton and the quiet toughness of Gardner, who has started every game at point guard since he's been at Arizona, provide just the right example for the underclassmen, Olson said.

''We're still talking about nine out of 12 underclassmen,'' Olson said. ''Normally that would bode well for the future, but the way things are now, you never know how long you're going to have anybody. But I feel very good about this team.

''The squad chemistry has developed very, very quickly, and I give credit to our senior tri-captains for that.''

Walton, a 6-foot-8 fifth-year senior, averaged 15.7 points and 7.3 rebounds while leading the Pac-10 with 6.3 assists per game. The son of former UCLA great and NBA star Bill Walton uses his intelligence and natural instincts to overcome any physical limitations, and he's a natural leader.

''Especially in college basketball, a team is as good as their leaders make them,'' Walton said. ''A lot of teams have a lot of talent, but without leadership it's not going to go very far, since so many kids are so young.''

Gardner is the lone starter remaining from that 2000-01 team. He looks forward to the pressure defense and knows that with the depth he won't have to play 39 minutes a game like he did last year.

''I wanted to play for a Hall of Fame coach,'' he said when someone asked why he stayed in school.

Olson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last month.

The buzz around the team lately has been the spectacular above-the-rim abilities of the 6-4 Adams, from Westchester High School in Los Angeles, and the 6-6 Iguodala, from Lanphier High in Springfield, Ill. The two became friends a year ago during the Nike summer camp, and both sport 5-day-old tattoos on their forearms.

Both talked about going to Arizona, and Adams said he was shocked when Iguodala signed with Arkansas. But when Nolan Richardson was forced out as coach at Arkansas, Iguodala had the option of changing his choice, and he switched to Arizona.

It's where he should have gone all along, he said.

''I think about that every day,'' Iguodala said.

The sophomores gained valuable experience during the team's summer tour of Australia. Frye, a 6-10 center, has added some muscle. Fox, 6-9 and 269 pounds, is running the floor well and is in better shape than he was at the start of last year. Latimore, 6-8 and 238 pounds, appears to be the most improved, Olson said. The sharpshooter Stoudamire is the returning starter at off-guard, and Bynum insists he's not displeased with his role as a backup point guard.

''Our fans,'' Olson said, ''are going to love this team.''



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