Transfers, injuries, graduations, birthdays - a tale of winter break
It's been an eventful winter break for the UA men's basketball team, to say the least.
Players have transferred and gotten injured, the 37-game home winning streak ended, one player got his master's degree before most students his age graduate, another player turned 18-years old and the team swept the Bay Area schools to open the Pacific 10 Conference season.
Before the team left for Chicago to play Connecticut on Dec. 7, junior forward Luke Recker, who transferred to Arizona from Indiana over the summer, decided to move school once again, this time to Iowa.
Recker was in an automobile accident over the summer and wanted to move closer to his girlfriend, who is recovering at her home in Jasper, Indiana, from partial paralysis she suffered in the crash.
Sophomore guard Ruben Douglas, who was released from his scholarship at the beginning of the season, transferred to New Mexico. Douglas wanted more playing time at UA, but was beat out by freshman Gilbert Arenas for the starting spot.
After defeating Michigan State and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis at the McKale Center during Finals Week, senior guard Josh Pastner had to arrive in Las Vegas the day of the UA-Nebraska game at the Thomas and Mack Center instead of the night before.
No, Pastner did not violate any team rules, miss his flight or do anything wrong.
Pastner attended graduation ceremonies on Saturday afternoon to receive his master's degree, then flew to Las Vegas in time to make tip-off. Arizona won the contest 80-59, and Pastner scored five points - a three-pointer and two free throws.
A year ago, Pastner had to make similar travel arrangements. He graduated with a degree in family studies in two and one-half years, attended graduation and arrived in time to see Arizona defeat Iowa State.
The Wildcats returned home to host New Mexico, a team who was 5-5 at the time, on Dec. 21. The Lobos, who upset Arizona by one point on its home floor last year, again gave Arizona fits. A last-second shot by Jason Gardner was off the mark, and New Mexico won 70-68, ending Arizona's 37-game winning streak at the McKale Center.
Another defection took place just before the Fiesta Bowl Classic, with freshman center Robertas Javtokas left the team to play professionally in his native country, Lithuania. Javtokas said he was having trouble with the English language.
"Robertas will not be with us, and he will be heading back to Lithuania," Olson said. "He has been offered a contract with the Division I league, the top level league out there. I think some of this comes from the frustration with his classes and the language barrier he has encountered. He feels that it would be just easier to head back and play professionally."
Looking to do something different following the loss at McKale to New Mexico, sophomore forward Michael Wright and Arenas each wore a pair of old-school Air Jordans, and Arizona won its first game of the Bank One Fiesta Bowl Classic in the 66-51 win over North Carolina-Wilmington.
"After we lost that home game, I just went back to the beginning," Arenas said. "They feel fine."
Following his teammates' lead, junior center Loren Woods brought out a white headband in Arizona's next game of the Classic, against Delaware. Arizona had played lethargically against New Mexico and UNC-Wilmington, and restored some confidence with a 89-77 win over the Fighting Blue Hens, an NCAA Tournament team last year.
"I just had those images of Wilt (Chamberlain) in my head," Woods said. "I was with Josh (Pastner) when I bought it, and he told me to do something crazy for the last game of the century, so I bought it."
"I think I may have started something. We may come out against Cal with all of us wearing them."
Nobody came out wearing them against California, to head coach Lute Olson's delight, and Arenas celebrated his 18th birthday in the 65-61 win at Haas Pavilion last Thursday.
While the weekend sweep may give Arizona confidence, a 2-0 Pacific 10 Conference record and a No. 2 ranking, the team is down to seven scholarship players after sophomore forward Richard Jefferson broke his foot in the win over Stanford.
Pastner, a player-coach, has been scouring the Student Recreation Center and other Tucson-area playgrounds for scout team players in practice.
"We're just looking for bodies," Olson said.
How Arizona handles all this adversity could be the main story line for the rest of the season.