Asked by the coaches to speak up more, Gardner has fulfilled that request too. "He knows he needs to talk to us all the time, because that's the only way we're going to win," says freshman center Channing Frye. "Even once we start figuring things out, his voice is still going to be in our heads."
If the Arizona locker room smells like teen spirit, that's because the five freshmen have an underrated skill: They listen. "With Jason, Luke and Ricky we have three good leaders, but they need guys who are willing to learn," Olson says. The star pupils are Slim, Willard, L'il Sean, IF and D-Lat, whose enthusiasm would make them a latter-day version of the Gumbies—remember those boisterous bench jockies at Arizona in the late 1980s?—if they didn't get so much playing time.
Olson's strategy has been to start his three juniors and let the freshmen compete for the last two spots. At shooting guard the battle has seesawed between Salim (Slim) Stoudamire, Damon's cousin, whom Olson calls the Wildcats' best on-the-ball defender, and Will (Willard) Bynum, a Chicago-bred gunner who was one of the subjects of last year's weekly Fox Sports documentary Preps. At center Olson has started Frye, a 6'10" shot blocker—known as L'il Sean for his resemblance to former Arizona star Sean Elliott—and Isaiah (IF) Fox, whose thick beard, massive bulk and James Earl Jones voice caused his teammates to think they were meeting Fox's father when they were introduced. Rounding out the crew is Dennis (D-Lat) Latimore, who led the Wildcats in rebounds (nine) against Illinois and leads them in tattoos (seven) every day.
Olson doesn't need his freshmen to carry the team, but they must contribute. "The big thing is to have consistent rebounding and solid defense from them," he says. "Then a lot of times one freshman has stepped up with a good offensive game for us." Fox (5.3 rebounds per game), Frye (3.7) and Latimore (3.8) have helped take care of the glass—to say nothing of tough inside matchups against Maryland's Lonny Baxter, Florida's Udonis Haslem and Illinois's Robert Archibald—while Stoudamire (19 second-half points in a win at Texas) and Bynum (16 points against Florida) have provided offensive sparks.
Remarkably the freshmen have yet to suffer the personality conflicts that their internecine competition might have caused. "We hit it off the first day of school," says Frye, who often hosts his four classmates in his dorm room, where they listen to his massive CD collection, raid his fridge and play way-too-serious games of virtual tennis on his Dreamcast. As for freshman initiations, forget about it. "We needed these guys, so we had to make them comfortable from the get-go," says the easygoing Walton, a frequent visitor to the freshman pad who often accompanies the rookies to the cineplex. "There's not a movie out there that we haven't seen together."
That camaraderie is paying off on the court. "The whole is better than the individual parts right now," Olson says of his team. "That's why I feel comfortable that they'll get better and better."
He might have something to do with that, too. Nearly a year after ovarian cancer claimed the life of Bobbi, his wife of 47 years, Olson, 67, has dived headlong into his work, spending more time at school than ever before, watching videotape into the evening hours and joining his players at the nightly training-table meal for the first time in his career. "That's been good," he says, "because the freshmen get to see me in a situation other than as the dictator on the court."
Olson's daughter Christi and her four children, ages 6 through 12, have moved into Grandpa's house to keep him company. On most mornings he wakes the kids for school and goes for a long walk in the hills north of Tucson with the family dogs. Over the summer Olson took another daughter, Jodi, and one of her friends on a three-week trip to Europe, hitting all of his and Bobbi's favorite spots, from London to Provence to Salzburg to Barcelona.
He returned home to more letters of condolence, which have included several photographs and dinner invitations from Southwestern widows and divorc�es. It's a sensitive subject, but with his considerable success, rock-ribbed Midwestern values and Cary Grant looks, Olson is among the most desirable over-65 heartthrobs on the planet. "Who can say what the future holds?" he says, bemused by all the attention. "But [dating] is nothing I'm interested in right now."
Given Arizona's brutal schedule, who has time? This Saturday the Wildcats travel to Michigan State, which has the nation's longest winning streak at home, 49 games. It's the kind of test that nobody would have given Arizona a chance of winning before the season. "That's college basketball," says Gardner. "People said we wouldn't even be .500, that Coach should retire. The last two years were so difficult with injuries and Mrs. O and all the guys leaving. This year I just want to win for Coach O."