Back on The Prowl
After a rough start, preseason No. 1 Arizona is at full force and looking like a title contender
A COUPLE of hours before Arizona's Pac-10 game against No. 24 USC last Thursday, Wildcats coach Lute Olson drove to his Tucson house to change his clothes, and suddenly the emotions washed over him like an ocean swell. Three weeks after his wife of 47 years, Bobbi, had died of ovarian cancer, Olson was alone in their home, preparing to coach a game again for the first time. "I said, Wow, am I ready for this?" a still visibly shaken Olson explained the day after Arizona's 71—58 victory. "It's a very emotional time now, but I talked to my family about coaching the game, and the team needed to get back to a stable environment."
With Olson's return after missing five games, the preseason No. 1 Wildcats were at full strength for the first time since the first week of January 2000 (considering injuries, suspensions, the anguish of Bobbi's last few weeks and Lute's leave of absence), and after last week's mojo-rising wins over USC and UCLA, Arizona, which is 12—5 and ranked No. 12, had a message for the rest of the country: Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. "I wouldn't want to play us," warned senior center Loren Woods after last Saturday's 88—63 rout of the Bruins, during which the Wildcats outscored UCLA by 33 points in the second half. "About 10 teams have a good shot of winning the national championship, and we're definitely one of them."
That's a much more cautious statement than Woods's preseason boast that Arizona could be "the greatest team" ever. The Wildcats began the season by losing five of their first 13 games, including head-scratchers to Purdue and Mississippi State, and fell to No. 21. "With all the hype, our heads got a little big," sophomore point guard Jason Gardner says bluntly. Early this season the Wildcats' potent lineup, which featured five preseason Wooden Award candidates, often played like individuals rather than as a unit. "I don't think it's hard to motivate a team that isn't very talented," says junior swingman Richard Jefferson, "but with a team that is talented, it can be harder to get the players to work together."
Reenter Olson, who has stressed patience in the half-court offense and the fundamentals of team defense. At the same time, sophomore guard Gilbert Arenas has corrected his woebegone shot selection: He averaged 20 points on 58.7% shooting over the last four games, after having averaged 13.9 on 41.2% before that. Meanwhile, Arizona's suffocating man-to-man defense shut down two of the nation's most dangerous scorers last week in USC center Brian Scalabrine (zero points) and UCLA forward Jason Kapono (four).
No player will be more important to the Wildcats the rest of the way than the lanky 7' 1" Woods, who has the height and build of a saguaro cactus—and has been just as prickly of late. The day after Woods's ejection against Cal three weeks ago for crudely mouthing off to ref Charlie Range, the coaching staff made him watch every second of his meltdown on video. Says Olson, "I told the coaches, 'Mark my words, that incident will be the best thing that's happened to Loren, because now he'll recognize that you have to keep your emotions under control.' "
Woods responded with a triple double at Washington on Jan. 13, and he displayed the temperament of a guard at Buckingham Palace last Saturday in the first Arizona game refereed by Range since the one against Cal. "I'm trying not to get overly happy or too down when I'm out there," says Woods, who had 12 points and nine rebounds against the Bruins. "I need to keep a straight face the whole game."
Well, sort of. Not even Woods could resist chuckling when UCLA's Matt Barnes tried lamely (and futilely) to dunk over him. In fact, all the Arizona players seem to be regaining their swagger, and Jefferson, for one, claims to have no regrets about the Wildcats' preseason proclamations. "Not for a second," he says. "We're still cocky kids. When it's all over, we're going to be the best—or one of the best—teams in the country."
Bulldogs Making News on Court
Call it what you will—bad judgment, bad karma or, as Jerry Tarkanian prefers, "the damnedest breaks." Ever since Tarkanian took over as coach at his alma mater, Fresno State, in April 1995, the Bulldogs' program has been beset by disruptions including injuries, drug abuse, suspensions, arrests and an ongoing FBI point-shaving investigation. It appeared it would be more of the same this season when the NCAA suspended first-year point guard Tito Maddox for eight games because of a trip he took to Las Vegas last September that was paid for by an acquaintance of Maddox's whom the NCAA determined to be working for an agent.