Arizona's bus was rolling slowly away from Stanford's Maples Pavilion last Saturday night when the voice of Driver Julio came booming over the loudspeaker. "Well, boys, it looks like a couple of Wildcats got loose and a couple of Cardinals got eaten up!" Nibbling on a cold slice of pizza in the back, freshman point guard Jason Gardner roared with delight, not so much because Driver Julio had botched Stanford's singular nickname but because Arizona's 68-65 win over the top-ranked Cardinal had seemed wildly improbable only 90 minutes earlier.
How's this for an unlikely scenario? It's late in the first half, and you're losing by nine. Your best athlete has broken his foot, leaving you only seven healthy scholarship players. You're facing the nation's No. 1 team on its home court in the biggest game of the young college season, and your fate is in the hands of—no joke—a freshman.
And you still win.
If the Wildcats, 13-2 and ranked No. 2 in this week's AP poll, go on to fabulous things in March, they'll look back fondly to the opening minutes of last Saturday's second half, when Gardner spearheaded a game-tilting, Maples-wilting 18-4 run. He whished a seeing-eye pass to center Loren Woods for a layup. Then he seduced his defender with a crossover and drained a three-pointer. Then he popped from 25 feet for another three. After one basket the normally reserved Gardner got so jacked up that he celebrated by turning and holding his follow-through—Talk to the hand!—for Stanford's snarky Sixth Man student section. Nobody, least of all the Cardinal players, had an answer for his heroics, and when the stunning victory was complete, Gardner had scored a career-high 22 points.
This carrot-topped point guard is infinitely more creative and fun to watch than, well, Carrot Top. In one sequence against bewildered Stanford, Gardner literally dribbled a circle around the other nine players on the floor. Through Sunday he was averaging 12.0 points, 5.6 assists and, most revealingly, 35.4 minutes a game as a point guard, leading to this conclusion: During a season in which freshmen are having a profound impact, Gardner has been the most influential rookie in the country. "He has to be," Wildcats coach Lute Olson said after Saturday's win, the 600th of his career. "Look how many minutes he's playing for us. We rely on Jason, and we'd really be in trouble without him."
Gardner is only the latest in a long line at Point Guard U. The roster of Olson's NBA-dwelling alumni traces back through Jason Terry, Mike Bibby, Damon Stoudamire and Steve Kerr at Arizona. In fact, it reaches all the way to Ronnie Lester at Iowa, where Olson was the coach from 1974 to '83. Gardner also suggests an obvious question for Bob Knight, Gene Keady and Indiana governor Frank O'Bannon: Who let this guy out of your state? At Indianapolis's North Central High last year, Gardner won both the state title and Indiana's Mr. Basketball award, yet he always had his heart set on Arizona. Granted, Tucson's dry heat is better for Gardner's asthma, but.... "I did a lot of research," he says, "and I liked the way Arizona gets the ball up and down the floor and Coach O's history of getting point guards to the next level."
It's no easy matter, though, for a freshman point guard to earn the respect of his older teammates. Reserve guard Josh Pastner is convinced that Gardner established his street cred during the first two weeks of the school year. At the time, the Wildcats' pickup games, far removed from the supervision of coaches, were dragging, mainly because players were calling fouls every time they missed a shot. Then Gardner stepped in. "When Jason speaks, guys listen," Pastner says. "He was mad, and he got in people's faces and said, 'Hey, we've got to stop calling fouls.' After that the games picked up to a whole new level."
To hear Olson describe it, developing pro-quality point guards is a classic nature-versus-nurture balancing act. For while he's correct when he says that Gardner and his predecessors have been blessed with certain unteachable skills—leadership, explosiveness, court sense—he's just as persuasive when warning that Gardner, as a freshman, still has a lot to learn. After Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin dropped 23 points on Gardner during the Huskies' 78-69 victory in December, Olson told reporters that Gardner had taken the matchup too personally. Likewise, Olson preached restraint to those who would unduly praise Gardner after his transcendent performance on Saturday. "As soon as Jason and our other guards treat the free throw line as a stop sign, we'll be in very good shape," he said. "High school guards always think closer is better, and at this level closer is the worst thing you can get, unless you have a layin. We've shown Jason tapes of Damon Stoudamire rocking people back on their heels and popping jumpers."
What, specifically, makes for a good point guard program? Isiah Thomas, considered by some the best ever at the position, believes Olson and Knight are the preeminent point guard coaches in the college game for a simple reason: freedom. "It's because they let you play" Thomas says. "Point guard isn't a defined position. You need multiple skills to understand the two-through-five positions and, if need be, to play all those positions within the confines of the offense. Stoudamire plays on the ball, off the ball and posts up, and it's the same with [ Indiana senior] A.J. Guyton. That's why my college choices came down to Lute Olson and Bob Knight." While one suspects that Thomas is being generous toward his old coach—Knight has lost both Gardner and Luke Recker to Arizona in the past year—his point makes sense: Before Olson and his staff can teach a single thing, their system has to attract the talent.
Which is why the 1993-94 season was so important: It marked the true beginning of Olson's glasnost era for guards. That year Arizona led the vanguard toward perimeter-overloaded play by switching its offensive focus from immobile big men—e.g., the Twin Towers of Sean Rooks and Ed Stokes—to a hyperkinetic three-guard attack, slotting Stoudamire at the point, Khalid Reeves at the two and Reggie Geary at the three. "Coach changed the whole philosophy," says Stoudamire, who raised his scoring average from 11.0 to 18.3 points a game and drew his first serious notice from pro scouts. "He let Khalid and me take a lot more shots and be more creative with the ball, and we went to the Final Four that year. That helped a lot with recruiting."