Wildcats: Don't forget about us
INDIANAPOLIS -- Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner doesn't want to hear talk of anything less than a top 10 preseason ranking. In fact, he'd like to see the Wildcats in the top five.
But while Pastner has the tendency to boast a bit about the Wildcats, he's not a lone voice.
Got that. Mark it down. That's what the Arizona coaches and players believe -- in July.
Isn't this the same team that finished 20-10 overall, 11-7 in the Pac-10 and failed to beat Stanford or Washington? Isn't this the same team that could have been a questionable NCAA Tournament pick since its best win of the season came in early December?
Isn't this the same team that flopped at the end of the season, losing to Seton Hall in the first round of the NCAAs? The same team that lost sophomore Andre Iguodala, who was in the top three in both assists and rebounds in the Pac-10, to the NBA?
None of that matters to Olson and his crew because they believe they're ready to make a run.
The Wildcats have enough core talent to challenge the expected favorites, a list that includes Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Syracuse and Wake Forest. But last season's flakiness makes Arizona one of the toughest teams to predict -- even in July.
Nonetheless, Olson and Pastner were pleased to hear rising senior Channing Frye talk about returning to school to win a national championship, as he did last week at the Nike Camp in Indianapolis. Rising sophomore point Mustafa Shakur was standing a few feet away and later established his belief that the Wildcats were poised to compete for the title. Rising junior guard Hassan Adams, who had to play power forward on a depleted Wildcats' team a year ago, probably would have concurred.
"This team could be good, very, very good," said Olson, who displayed a wide grin after watching Frye and Shakur work out in Indianapolis. "We've got everyone back except Andre and a good recruiting class that people don't realize how good it is. Hopefully it will translate into the Final Four."
The great thing about Arizona's staff -- from Olson to associate head coach Jim Rosborough to assistant Rodney Tention to Pastner -- is how honest its members are in their assessment of their team. They don't hide behind coach-speak or try and tell you how they won't be any good. If they believe they will be title contenders, they won't shy away from it. And that confidence oozes from the players, too -- even in July.
"Every team has issues, and we didn't transfer our chemistry onto the court," Frye said. "Everyone is hungry."
"Very hungry," Frye said. "We want to win really badly. We have leaders who are trying to get better every day. We've got a great work ethic. Look, we're all here trying to get better and watching these other guys and how hard they work."
Frye, Shakur and Adams were a part of a who's-who in college hoops at the Nike Camp.
The counselors were, perhaps, the best Nike has ever had.
That meant Frye, Shakur and Adams had to go against some of the best players in the country to gauge their progress.
The best counselor last week was Oklahoma State's Joey Graham, a certain star next season who was viewed by some NBA personnel as a more skilled version of Iguodala. But it didn't stop there. The Arizona trio also had to go against North Carolina's Sean May and Rashad McCants, Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf, Duke's Shelden Williams, Oklahoma State's John Lucas, Wake Forest's Chris Paul and Justin Gray, Kansas' Wayne Simien and Keith Langford, Kentucky's Chuck Hayes, Cincinnati's Jason Maxiell, Florida's David Lee, Georgia Tech's Will Bynum and Jarrett Jack, Illinois' Deron Williams, Washington's Nate Robinson and East Tennessee State's Tim Smith.
|“||We want to win really badly. We have leaders who are trying to get better every day. We've got a great work ethic. Look, we're all here trying to get better and watching these other guys and how hard they work. ”|
|— Channing Frye,
The commitment shown by the Wildcats to get together in July so that they mesh in October isn't some sort of new fad. Teams have been doing this for years; most notably Kansas, which sent four starters to the Nike camp prior to its last Final Four run in 2003.
"I know this is going to help us," Shakur said. "We'll be together here and then again at the Jordan camp (in Santa Barbara later this summer)."
Also, this weekend Shakur and Adams will try and make the USA Basketball World Championships for Young Men's qualifying team. The team is competing later this month in Halifax, Nova Scotia, against teams from the Americas for a spot in the World competition in 2005.
But it would be wrong to assume that Arizona can rely on three players to get it to the Final Four. The reason for so much optimism in Arizona is that the Wildcats truly believe they'll have a complete team -- or shall we say a complete roster -- next season.
Frye could be the most dominating center in the country. The majority of the top frontcourt players (Simien, Lawrence Roberts, Ryan Gomes, Hakim Warrick, Turiaf and Ike Diogu) are power forwards, not centers. Frye is a college center. Adams won't have to play power forward and could be more effective at small forward now that Isaiah Fox is back after a knee injury kept him out after December.
The Wildcats also added Mohamed Tangara, a strong physical rebounder who Olson is raving about -- in July.
And we haven't even gotten to the team's biggest enigma -- guard Salim Stoudamire, who went from scoring 34 and 37 in consecutive games against UCLA and Oregon, respectively, to 12 against Oregon State. When Stoudamire is stroking 3s, the 'Cats could be title contenders. But he can't sulk and sit out defensive plays and expect the Wildcats to be in games for his late-game shooting displays.
The starting lineup of Shakur, Stoudamire, Adams, Fox and Frye is as talented as any team in the country.
Having a legitimate bench that could extend to six, assuming the Wildcats redshirt centers Kirk Walters and Charles Okwandu per the staff's prerogative, means Arizona can be considered a contender.
Chris Rodgers is a backup at either guard. Small forward Ivan Radenovic wasn't ready for the athleticism of the college game when he arrived from Europe in December. But a semester immersed in the college game has made him a tougher and more formidable forward, according to Olson.
Now add in shooting guard backups Jawann McClellan and Jesus Verdejo, at the point in Daniel Dillon and the Wildcats consider themselves loaded on the perimeter.
Last season, Arizona leaned on largely seven scholarship players. The 'Cats could go with 11 next season.
"Our problem last season was depth and injuries," Olson said. "Based on the limited numbers I thought we did well. But it was hard to practice. Our practices are going to be very competitive again."
Olson can't wait to coach this team. He loves the role of being a favorite in the Pac-10. And he wouldn't mind someone putting the Wildcats out there to be a leading contender nationally. When he believes it, he doesn't mind pushing it.
Even in July.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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