Stoudamire seeks Final Four, place in Cats history
ROSEMONT, ILL. -- Salim Stoudamire sat on the interview platform as the clock neared midnight, his jersey untucked, bags of ice on his knees, a smile nowhere to be found on his face.
The Arizona guard looked like a guy on his way to the dentist rather than a guy who had just scored 10 of his team's final 14 points and won a Sweet 16 game with a tough jump shot with 2.8 seconds to play.
Satisfied? No chance.
"I'm happy, but I want to get to the Final Four," Stoudamire said. "I know we've got business ahead of us."
The business, in this case, is Saturday evening's Chicago Regional championship game. That's where the third-seeded Wildcats will play what's essentially a road game against top-seeded and top-ranked Illinois.
The easy thing to say is that all of the pressure in this game is on the Illini. Illinois, after all, has talked all season about getting to the Final Four; Bruce Weber's team has been the one at the top of the polls since December, and the Illini, seemingly, have the most to lose.
While all of that is true, Arizona's seniors -- Stoudamire and big man Channing Frye -- understand that this game ultimately will determine how they are remembered. The reason? For the better part of 20 years, Arizona basketball has been about getting to the Final Four.
Since the 1987-88 season, every Wildcats senior class has played in at least one Final Four. Stoudamire and Frye, however, are still looking for that first trip. Last season, the Wildcats lost to Seton Hall in the first round of the tournament. In 2003, Kansas defeated Arizona in the regional final. In 2002, Arizona lost to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16.
That's why getting to next week's Final Four in St. Louis is so important to Stoudamire. The cousin of former Arizona guard and current NBA player Damon Stoudamire, Salim understands the program's history and how important winning is.
Sure, Stoudamire and Frye have won 102 games, two Pac-10 regular-season titles and a Pac-10 tournament title, but that doesn't cut it at an elite program like Arizona's. If he wants to be listed in the same company as former Arizona guards such as Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Jason Gardner, Khalid Reeves and his cousin, Stoudamire knows his team needs to defeat Illinois.
"It means a great deal," Stoudamire said. "There hasn't been a senior class that hasn't been to the Final Four in, like, 20 years; I don't want to start. It's definitely been a motivating factor. People have talked about it a lot. We want to shut them up."
It won't be easy, however. With essentially three guards on the floor, Illinois has enough quickness to be able to defend Stoudamire, backcourt mate Mustafa Shakur and wing Hassan Adams. Illinois' inside players, James Augustine and Roger Powell Jr., will give up height to Frye and Ivan Radenovic, but they are stronger.
"They've got their work cut out for them," Arizona coach Lute Olson said of his seniors' quest for the Final Four.
"Illinois is tough, but Oklahoma State is tough. We had a tough game, but Illinois had an exhausting game too with [Wisconsin-Milwaukee's] pressure. Their guards are really good."
The same can be said of late about the guy with the headband, the beard and the poofy hair.
That was especially the case late in Thursday night's victory over the Cowboys. Stoudamire simply wasn't going to lose. During a timeout with 13.1 seconds to play, the Arizona coaches called for Stoudamire to come off of a Frye screen on the left side.
"I didn't want the screen, to tell you the truth," Stoudamire said. "When the coaches said that I was, like, 'Ah, no. I don't want the screen.'"
His reason was simple. He wasn't going to give up the ball. He knew Oklahoma State would try to double-team him off of the screen and force him to pass. After yelling at Chris Rodgers to get out of the corner -- "Knucklehead, get out of the way," Salim said later -- Stoudamire ran off the screen, used a crossover dribble to get free of Oklahoma State's Daniel Bobik and buried the game-winning jumper.
Talent has never been the issue for Stoudamire -- he's averaging 18.6 points per game and shooting better than 51 percent on 3-pointers. Earlier this season, Olson got on his soapbox and said there was little question that Stoudamire is the best shooter in country. Stoudamire, however, isn't sure he agrees that he's a better pure shooter than Duke's J.J. Redick.
"I think he is because I don't consider myself a shooter, I'm a scorer," Stoudamire said.
What's the difference?
"A scorer is a player who puts the ball in the hole in a variety of ways; a shooter just shoots jump shots," he said.
With a victory over Illinois, Stoudamire will give the entire country an opportunity to see just how talented he is. It would also allow him to fully rehabilitate his image.
For Stoudamire's first three-plus seasons at Arizona, he could nicely be described as petulant. He pouted. He moped. He was destructive enough to the Wildcats' chemistry that Olson suspended him for the Marquette game earlier this season.
"If my hair had been black four years ago, Salim would've turned it white," Olson said. "We joke about it now, the two of us. Honestly, from the middle of March last year to the middle of March this year, I've never in 49 years of coaching dealt with a kid who has changed as much in one year as Salim has."
Said Frye: "He just realized that for him to be successful, he can't do it by himself."
Not surprisingly, Stoudamire isn't that interested in hearing about that.
"I'm about sick and tired of talking about how I've changed," Stoudamire said. "I think I have, but it stems from me understanding Coach O and his motivating tactics. I would take things personally in the past. I had a conversation with my cousin, Damon, and I told him some of the things he'd say to me, and he said, 'He said the same things to Khalid Reeves.' Then I knew it wasn't personal.
"He's a lot more demanding, especially from his best players. I can't even describe how much he rides me, but it's going to pay off in the end."
Especially if the Wildcats get back to the Final Four and keep the streak alive.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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