They have heard the doubters who say they are headed for a fall, that the season to come is too full of physical and mental obstacles for them to repeat as national champions. But compared with what the Arizona Wildcats endured together last May, how bad can the trials ahead be?
Just six weeks after whipping No. 1 seeds Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky to win the NCAA title, the newly crowned champions embarked on a 23-day exhibition tour of Australia, where, to hear the survivors tell it, hardship and deprivation met them at every turn. There was alien voltage that blew out their VCRs, Aussie barbers who could not be trusted with Wildcats coifs, and flies so big "they made off with our luggage," according to guard Miles Simon. And the cuisine? Well, point guard Mike Bibby doesn't mind a little adventure, but not when he sits down to eat. While his more daring teammate, backup center Donnell Harris, tried camel and crocodile meat, Bibby ate four McDonald's cheeseburgers a day for 23 straight days. "It was terrible," he says. "I had really been trying to cut down on those."
But neither the joy of victory nor the hardships of travel seem to have deterred Arizona in its effort to improve. "I haven't seen any complacency with these guys," says coach Lute Olson. "In fact, I don't see any change other than that they are a whole lot better than they were. A.J. Bramlett is not even the same player. And I think we can say that about all four of the inside guys."
Bramlett, a 6'11" junior center who led all players with 10.3 rebounds a game during the NCAAs (up from 6.2 during the regular season), has continued what Olson calls the biggest one-season improvement he has ever seen in one of his players. He spent the summer in the weight room and on the court, working out religiously with Harris and forwards Eugene Edgerson and Bennett Davison. "Our inside play is considerably improved because of strength that's been gained, not weight," says Olson. "We keep saying it's fine to put on weight as long as it's weight that helps you be quicker."
From the beginning of pickup games, Bramlett has felt that his teammates' improved power and quickness could lead the Cats to another title. "Everyone on this team amazes me in some way," says Bramlett. "Every guy has come back stronger and with new moves."
With Olson welcoming back 11 letter winners from last year—including all five starters—and adding redshirt freshmen Quynn Tebbs and Justin Wessel, who practiced with the team every day, that's a dizzying number of new moves. "We're going to surprise a lot of people," says Simon, who was the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. "We've got some new stuff."
That all sounds promising, but isn't Arizona going to crumble under the pressure of being the hunted? "I don't see that happening with us because pressure doesn't really bother us," says junior Jason Terry, who can back up Bibby at point guard or join him in a devastatingly quick three-guard lineup. "We've got leaders on this team."
One of the leaders, of course, is Bibby, a supersized talent who overcame his fast-food fixation and returned to school in better shape than ever and with more confidence in his outside shot. Since arriving at Arizona last year, Bibby has devoted his spare time to improving his jumper, and he gives most of the credit for its development to fellow sophomore Josh Pastner, a seldom-used reserve who aspires to be an NBA coach. "We became friends last year because we both like to work on our shots, and we would rebound for each other," says Bibby, who shot a very respectable .394 from beyond the three-point arc last year. "Now he mostly rebounds for me. If my shot goes bouncing off the rim, he knows what went wrong and why. He's an unbelievably good coach. If he wasn't here, I wouldn't have shot as well as I did last year. I owe everything to him."
After a summer separation during which Pastner coached a youth team in Houston, and Bibby shot until he made 500 baskets each day at a church gym in Phoenix, the two are working together again. They are even roommates, though they seem to live at McKale Center, where they shoot baskets late into the night, often in the company of other teammates.
The Wildcats are aware that they'll need every edge they can get this year. "We know everyone is going to be going hard at us, as if it's the championship game," says senior forward Michael Dickerson. "But we're loose, we're confident, we're family. And we've been through tough times before."