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Rizona Coach Lute Olson is still the Cary Grant of college basketball, preternaturally unruffled, not a hair out of place, though the past year has been hard on him. Last March his defending national champs, with all their top players back, lost to Utah in the West Regional final. This season, having lost three players to the NBA, Olson has had to rebuild the Wildcats by mixing two seniors, point guard Jason Terry and center AJ. Bramlett, with five talented but error-prone freshmen. Yet those trying experiences have been trifles compared to the ordeal that began last June for Lute's wife of 45 years, Bobbi, during a visit to Europe.
Lute had just given a clinic in Vienna when he and Bobbi drove to Budapest for some sightseeing. Once they arrived there, the stomach pains she had begun feeling in Austria became excruciating. She assumed the cause was food poisoning, but when a doctor was summoned to examine her, he immediately called for an ambulance. What ensued was "a nightmare," Lute says. As the Soviet-era ambulance lurched through Budapest's cobblestoned streets, Lute crouched over Bobbi, his white-knuckled hands pressing down on the sides of her gurney to keep it still. "Bobbi was conscious," he says, "but she was in enormous pain."
Semmelweis Hospital, touted as Hungary's finest, was little comfort. Medics wheeled Bobbi through a construction site to the emergency room, where they pounded on the door for 10 minutes before a doctor finally answered. He did a quick exam and then, through a translator, offered his diagnosis: Bobbi's small intestine was blocked, and she needed emergency surgery. "There was no other option," says Lute. "The doctor said if we didn't get her in the operating room right away, she wasn't going to make it" Two hours later the surgeon returned to report that he had removed the blockage but that it was only part of a larger tumor—the size of a baby's head—which tests in Tucson later revealed to be stage-three ovarian cancer, an advanced form.
After fighting postoperative infections for nine days in Budapest and Vienna hospitals, Bobbi was taken by Medivac plane with Lute, their daughter Jodi and two doctors from Arizona's University Medical Center back to Tucson, where she began undergoing twice-monthly chemotherapy treatments. Lute, for the first time in his 25-year coaching career, stayed home during the July recruiting period, sending associate head coach Jim Rosborough in his place. After some soul-searching he decided not to take a leave of absence. "If this had happened during the school year instead of the summer, I never would have coached this year," he says.
The prognosis for Miz O, as the Arizona players call her, is good. A second operation in September showed that chemotherapy had dissolved the tumor, and her last set of scheduled treatments were to take place early this week. "Everything is going well," says Bobbi, who advises women to get tested for ovarian cancer. "I think I'm on every prayer list in Tucson."
Remarkably, Bobbi has attended most of Arizona's games, home and away, where she has witnessed the rise of a surprisingly dangerous team. With a 78-76 upset of No. 3 Stanford and a 91-74 rout of Cal last week, the No. 10 Wildcats improved to 15-3, thanks primarily to Terry, last year's sixth man, who is now one of the nation's top point guards and a serious contender for national player of the year honors. Through Sunday he led the Pac-10 in scoring (21.4 points a game) and assists (5.4) and was second in steals (2.6). He has been helped by three of the freshmen—6'8" guard Rick Anderson, 6'6" forward Richard Jefferson and 6'7" forward Michael Wright who have cracked the starting lineup and begun making fewer silly mistakes. "I think this team can be as good as last year's, I really do," Olson said last week, and who could question his optimism?
Missouri Valley Conference
Quick: Name three teams from the Missouri Valley Conference. Can't do it? You're not alone. But if the NCAA tournament selection committee has the same problem come March 7—Selection Sunday—it will have absolutely no excuse. The Missouri Valley has undergone an RPI renaissance, rising from 21st in the 1991-92 conference rankings to an alltime high of No. 7 through Sunday. That's better than several so-called power conferences, including the Big 12 (8th), the Atlantic 10 (9th) and the WAC (10th).
The Missouri Valley's secret is simple: Schedule tough nonconference games—at home when possible—and win a few of them. Take 14-5 Creighton (30 in the team RPI rankings). Led by 6' 5" senior forward Rodney Buford, the league's probable MVP, the Bluejays have beaten Iowa on the road and Oklahoma State at home. Then there's 16-5 Southwest Missouri State (RPI 26), which has defeated Missouri on the Tigers' home court and lost to Stanford and TCU. Still in the hunt for an at-large bid is 12-7 Bradley (RPI 68), which has beaten Penn State, while 16-6 Evansville (RPI 83), the coleader in the conference and second-best shooting team in the country, could easily win the league tournament.