"If there was a turning point when we became more guard-oriented, that was the year," says Wildcats assistant Jim Rosborough, who first teamed up with Olson at Iowa in 1974. "Reggie was 6'2", but he could guard anyone up to 6'8", and the system allowed us to get up the floor quicker. It was pretty revolutionary at the time. Other coaches were calling and wanting to know what we were doing."
Some guards have improved more than others in Arizona's scheme. For example, Bibby, now with the Vancouver Grizzlies, arrived on campus in 1996 ready for the NBA as an offensive player, and he says his most important development came on the defensive end. According to Rosborough, the Arizona point guard who blossomed the most was Terry, the high-socked Atlanta Hawks rookie who morphed from a 9.8-minute-a-game bench warmer as a freshman to the 10th pick in last year's draft. "He came in as a talented but wild-haired guy who struggled delivering the ball and didn't care about defense," Rosborough says. "We had to tone him down a bit. He became a good defender, and look what happened."
It's too early to tell how much better Gardner will get, but this much is known: When Olson says, "We rely on Jason," he's repeating what he said last year about Terry, who, beyond averaging 21.9 points, was so critical to Arizona's attack—he logged 38.2 minutes a game—that the Wildcats coaches believe they gave him too much responsibility. Indeed, if Terry had a mediocre game, Arizona usually lost, as it did to Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The coaches' concern this season is whether Gardner can continue handling the workload. Then again, he has more support than Terry did. Four Wildcats were averaging between 12 and 15 points through Sunday. Woods, the mobile 7'1" transfer from Wake Forest, has shed his mercurial reputation, and he sliced up Stanford's vaunted big men for 16 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. Bruising forward Michael Wright has been solid, averaging 13.9 points a game and a team-high 8.7 rebounds. Gardner's roommate and backcourt sidekick, freshman Gilbert Arenas, remains the Wildcats' biggest surprise, providing unexpected scoring pop while trailing only Gardner in minutes played. The big question, however, is whether Arizona can get by with only those seven scholarship players for the next two months after forward Richard Jefferson, its most electrifying player, broke his right foot three minutes into last Saturday's game.
The pressure on Gardner will only increase, but amid all this talk of player education and high-tech coaching philosophies, it may put things in perspective to note that Gardner's first point guard lessons came from a German shepherd. As a four-year-old, Jason would repair to the family's basement every night with his dog, Dexter, and the two would go one-on-one using a Nerf ball on Jason's supercool Basketball Jammers indoor backboard-and-goal set. "I'd dribble the ball," Gardner says, "and the dog would try and take it from me. Every now and then he'd grab it, and I'd have to wrestle with him to get it back."
In other words the German shepherd was far more successful than any of the Cardinal defenders were, though the pooch angle has a poignant twist. Dexter, now 14 years old, was supposed to have relocated from Indianapolis to Tucson last fall with Jason's mother, Stephanie, but he never made the trip. "One day he got out," Stephanie says. "We don't know what happened to him, but he's around somewhere, and Jason thinks he's trying to get to Arizona."
Wherever you are, Dexter, your prot�g� is doing just fine, to say nothing of your teaching colleagues. As Olson and his staff know, the proof is in what you produce, and with Gardner they're making a very, very good point.