Old-timers. Seniors. Arizona is absolutely lousy with them. Just the other night a trio of geezers was indulging in yet another all-you-can-eat special at the Sushi Hama in Tucson. "You know what the cool thing is?" said Wildcats point guard Jason Gardner, nodding at his mackerel-munching fellow seniors, forwards Luke Walton and Rick Anderson. "Once you're older, you know what it takes to win a national title."
What it takes these days is seniors, the kind of program players—Shane Battier, Mateen Cleaves, Juan Dixon—who put the old in old school. After a 13-year span beginning in 1987 in which only one national champ ( UCLA in 1995) featured three senior starters, two of the last three titlists have done so ( Michigan State in 2000 and Maryland in 2002). "Seniors in a successful program know what pressure is," says coach Lute Olson, "and that really helps the younger guys."
Good thing, since Arizona has eight freshmen and sophomores in its 11-man rotation, including bulked-up 6'10", 235-pound center Channing Frye, who led the team in scoring and rebounding on its 10-game summer tour of Australia. With All-Americas Gardner and Walton on hand as steadying influences, the Wildcats' depth and newly installed full-court pressure will wear foes down to the nub.
About the only concern is chemistry: Can all 11 Wildcats stay happy? Moreover, if Gardner's minutes and points dip slightly, as is likely, how will he respond? "The success of a point guard is determined by how his team does as opposed to how much he's scoring," Olson says. As if to prove he's listening, Gardner preached the unity concept all fall.
Nor does it hurt to have a selfless player like Walton, the nation's most feared passer. "A lot of times you get teammates who are only worried about making the NBA," Walton says. "The main goal on this team is to win a national championship." With their three wise men showing the way, the Wildcats have the talent—and the temperament—to make that goal a reality.
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