The Daily Buzz
Walton: We're finally the team we expected to be
By Tim Crothers, Sports Illustrated
Arizona began this season 167 days ago with an unprecedented five Wooden award candidates and a brash prediction from senior center Loren Woods that these Wildcats could be the best college basketball team ever to lace 'em up.
For most of the season, Arizona wasn't even the best college team in the Pac-10. But the Wildcats' 80-61 drubbing of defending champion Michigan State on Saturday revived discussion of just how good this team can be.
"We're finally the team we expected to be at the beginning of the season," sophomore Luke Walton says. "We're living up to all our hype."
Junior Richard Jefferson adds, "With all the turmoil we've gone through this season we forfeited our chance to be considered one of the best teams of all time. But when you look back on our last 20 games we've built ourselves into a force whose ultimate game has yet to be played. Maybe we're a team of destiny."
While Arizona fans have paraded through the streets of Minneapolis wearing buttons that read, "Four Bobbi," the Arizona players have been reluctant to talk about what effect the Jan. 1 passing of coach Lute Olson's wife, Bobbi, could have on their performance in the title game. They've taken to using a code word:
"I just know it's going to be a very emotional Monday for us," senior Eugene Edgerson says. "We've experienced a death in the family so it would be a really gratifying win. I think we'd be at peace with ourselves knowing that we won for a good cause and fulfilled our destiny."
From 'I' to 'we'
To understand the historical ignominy of a great team that loses the NCAA title game, Arizona need only look back to the 1999 Duke Blue Devils.
Duke's powerful '99 team smoked their opponents by a school record average of 24.6 points per game and entered the NCAA tournament with a 32-1 record having played just three games decided by fewer than 10 points. Then they lost the championship game to UConn.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski believes the 2001 Blue Devils may be better prepared to win a national title than the 1999 team because this team isn't as dominant. The 2001 Blue Devils entered the NCAA tournament having already played eight games decided by two points or fewer and by rallying to defeat Maryland from 22 points down on Saturday, they proved that they are comfortable playing from behind, even way behind.
"Most teams were intimidated by us back in '99 and just surrendered without a fight," says Shane Battier, who was a sophomore on that team. "This year we're much more battle-tested. We have a very thick skin that's grown thicker with all the close games we've played."
Dig a little deeper and there's another key difference between Duke's last two contenders in the national title game.
"In '99 we felt we'd win just
because we're Duke," senior Nate James says. "We were overconfident.
were thinking about the NBA and where they might get drafted or maybe
transferring to another school. Everybody got caught up in their own
that broke the team apart and cost us the national championship. Too
guys said 'I' on that team. This year we say 'we.'"