All right, Loren Woods, everyone in Tucson claims the most-talked-about bad back in college basketball has completely healed. Can you prove it? "Right here in the locker room?" he asks. Yep, right here. Nodding gravely, the 7'1" Woods stands on the red carpet and launches into a routine that would make Savion Glover proud. He bends over, touching his fingertips to the floor, segues into a series of high knee lifts and then crashes onto his back—oof!—taking an imaginary charge. Now he's up again, coiling and leaping and hitting a ceiling rile 12 feet above with a resounding slap!
Big smile. "How's that?"
Not bad, especially since Woods had just finished a grueling three-hour practice during which the compressed disc that sidelined him for the final five weeks of last season was far from his mind. Two operations later, Woods has a clean bill of health, and so does Arizona, which, as Wisconsin showed in last season's NCAA tournament upset of the Wildcats, is hardly invincible without its shot-swatting, Skippy-smooth center. "No question," coach Lute Olson says, "Loren makes the difference between this team being rated among the top teams in the country and being back a ways."
Well, maybe, as long as you consider "back a ways" being No. 2. After all, how often in today's transient world of college basketball does a team that was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament one season have five starters back the next? (The last to do it was Arkansas in 1994-95) What's more, the entire quintet is among the 50 players nominated for the Wooden Award, while—oh the injustice!—all but one made the 30-member short list for the Naismith Award.
In other words, Arizona hardly needed to campaign for SI's endorsement as the best team in the land, though the spin doctors of the desert were all too ready and willing to do so. "If we're not ranked No. 1, then people should have their heads checked," said junior forward Richard Jefferson. "With all the experience we have, there's really no comparison, not even with Duke, but the only way for us to prove it is to step out there and play." Woods had the audacity to predict on media day that "if we win the national championship and we play to the level we're capable of playing, then we'll be the greatest team" in college basketball history.
That sound you hear is the thump of John Wooden's chin hitting the floor ("Loren obviously hasn't been alive for as long as I have," Olson says), but if you can cut through the hype, consider this: The Wildcats have more than just a frighteningly talented lineup; they also have players who understand their roles within Olson's high-flying system. Guys like Michael Wright, the burly junior forward whose ruthlessly efficient post play and Garbo-like manner belie his impact (15.5 points and 8.7 rebounds a game last season). A Chicago native, Wright spent part of the summer balling on the Rucker playgrounds in Harlem, and though Wright will still pick up plenty of, garbage buckets inside, Olson hints that "we'll give Michael the opportunity to face up more this season, since he has a nice shooting touch."
Olson is convinced that Wright's frontcourt mates, Jefferson and Woods, would have turned pro after last season had they not suffered serious injuries. Now fully recovered from a stress fracture in his right foot, the spring-legged Jefferson has committed to becoming a better defender. "I'm trying to prove that I'm not just an athlete," he explains. It's an admirable goal, but chances are that Jefferson will continue rendering the McKale Center faithful breathless with his thundering dunks and not with his half-court D.
As spectacular as the front line will be, the guard tandem of sophomores Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas could be even stronger. The pick of most pundits as last season's national freshman of the year, Gardner logged nearly 37 minutes a game and tired down the stretch. Now, having added 10 pounds of muscle, he should be more resilient. Though Gardner's roommate Arenas was the only Wildcats starter snubbed by the Naismith committee, he led Arizona in field goal attempts a year ago while averaging 15.4 points a game.
Yet for all of the Wildcats' star power, their linchpin is Woods, the Wake Forest transfer who last year erased any lingering doubts about his toughness in the post. Maybe it was his team-leading 15.6 points a game or his Division I record-tying 14 blocks against Oregon, or simply his stellar court vision for a center, but Woods was Arizona's indispensable player, as the Wildcats unhappily confirmed in the postseason.
Woods fell and landed awkwardly on his back in a game against Washington State last Feb. 12, and doctors later told him that another crash landing could be career-threatening. He had surgery on April 5, when four screws and a plate were inserted into his back to stabilize the 12th thoracic and first lumbar vertebrae and repair a compression injury to the disk between them, and again on April 7, when the screws were adjusted. Woods admits wondering as recently as July if he would be able to approach last season's level of play. He lifted weights like a man possessed over the summer, and ever since he started playing again in August, he has been getting his basketball legs back.