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College Basketball
Seth Davis
December 06, 1999
New Breed of Cat Arizona's freshman backcourt led the way in a win over Kentucky
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December 06, 1999

College Basketball

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New Breed of Cat
Arizona's freshman backcourt led the way in a win over Kentucky

The first call came to Rodney Tention's house on Nov. 1, the night before Arizona's annual Red-Blue scrimmage. Tention, a Wildcats assistant coach, picked up the receiver and heard the voice of 6'3" freshman guard Gilbert Arenas, whom Tention had recruited out of North Hollywood, Calif. "I'm nervous," Arenas said. "I don't know if I can do this." Tention counseled Arenas to relax and enjoy playing. He repeated that advice the night before each of the next four games—including two preseason exhibitions—when Arenas called him at home to tell him how nervous he was. "When I play, I'm not afraid of anybody," says Arenas, "but off the court, oh, man, I'm a nervous wreck."

The truth of that statement was apparent last Friday night in Madison Square Garden, just moments after he had established himself as the world's most famous Arenas in Arizona's 63-51 win over Kentucky in the final of the Chase NIT. With 6'7" sophomore Michael Wright, Arizona's best player, limited to one point in 17 minutes because of foul trouble, Arenas sparked the Wildcats with a 20-point, five-steal performance that earned him tournament MVP honors. Afterward he was summoned to the interview room, but upon catching one glance of the lights and the cameras, he took a pass. "No, no, no, I'm not going in there," he said, beating a hasty retreat to the locker room. "All those people? I'll be up there mumbling like Shaq."

Arenas can be forgiven for feeling a mite overwhelmed by his early success. His recruitment wasn't of the epic variety. Arizona beat out DePaul, Kansas State and Cal State-Northridge to procure his services—hometown UCLA wasn't interested—and Arenas figured he'd spend three years backing up Ruben Douglas, who was honorable mention on the All- Pac-10 freshman team last season, before getting his chance to start at shooting guard as a senior. But Arenas was so good so soon that Douglas realized after the Red-Blue scrimmage that he very well might end up as the reserve, so he decided to transfer. Through Sunday, Arenas was leading the Wildcats in scoring (14.8 points a game) and steals (3.3), and Arizona was 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the AP poll.

Arenas's fearlessness on the court was evident as he drove at Kentucky's shot blockers in the first half, galvanizing his teammates, who had seemed tentative while Kentucky took an early seven-point lead. "He's a great talent," Arizona coach Lute Olson says. "You have to get on him a little bit, but you have to get on him with love. Otherwise I think he'd crumble."

Arizona's impressive start can be attributed not only to Arenas's talent but also to the chemistry he has forged with 5'10" fellow freshman Jason Gardner, a former McDonald's high school All-America who is Arenas's roommate and backcourtmate. Gardner, who had 10 points, three assists and four steals in 37 minutes against Kentucky, decided a few weeks ago that he and Arenas should be called Batman and Robin, though that handle hasn't exactly caught on with their teammates. "We'd call them husband and wife before Batman and Robin," says 6'7" sophomore forward Richard Jefferson. "That's how it is with them. I always call Jason up and say, 'Can Gilbert come out and play?' "

The answer to that question should be obvious. The kid may be a nervous wreck, but he can definitely play.

West Virginia Woes
A Blight on the Mountaineers

In 37 years as an assistant and a head coach, West Virginia's Gale Catlett thought he had dealt with everything. Then, in September, the school announced it would close West Virginia Coliseum for the season following the discovery of high levels of asbestos in the 29-year-old structure. As a result the Mountaineers' season was turned into one long road trip. West Virginia will play six so-called home games in Wheeling, 75 miles from its Morgantown campus, and eight more in Charleston, 155 miles away. "This is the most unusual thing that has ever happened to me," Catlett says.

Equally unusual is Catlett's proposed solution to the academic challenges presented by the situation. At his behest West Virginia is preparing a petition to the NCAA to exempt Mountaineers players from the requirement that they complete 75% of their credit requirements for the year during the fall and spring semesters. The NCAA implemented the minimum seven years ago to prevent schools from abusing summer classes as a means of keeping their athletes eligible. Since Catlett, like many coaches, prefers to practice on-site the day before a game, his players are scheduled to be on the road a total of 52 days in December, January and February. "I don't think it's fair for our players to travel that much and still have the same requirements as normal student-athletes," says Catlett, who argues that his players can make up their lost credits next summer. "Some of our players have been told by their professors, 'You don't have a chance.' A lot of the professors don't care about basketball."

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