Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA faces grueling schedule during winter break
As the semester draws to a close and most UA students retreat into relaxation mode for a month, the Arizona men's basketball team will kick its season into high gear.
Beginning with a matchup at No. 15 Connecticut (6-1 overall) Saturday, the Wildcats (5-1) play seven games during the winter holiday, including three against teams currently ranked in the top-25.
Arizona's trip to Storrs, Conn. marks the first time that the entire team will play together, as senior center Loren Woods and junior forward Richard Jefferson will be fresh off their respective suspensions.
Woods - who was suspended before Arizona's season-opener at the Maui Invitational for accepting "improper benefits" from a family friend - said he is excited to put the controversy behind him and begin playing basketball.
"I really am eager to get back into the routine of playing the games," Woods said. "The whole suspension thing was pretty questionable, but I served my time and want to get out on the court and make some serious noise for the time that I missed.
"The team has operated well without me, but now that I am back, we are going to be able to run our offense exactly how we've been practicing it."
While the Wildcats don't have every offensive formation constructed around Woods, the Arizona attack will likely take on its original intended approach this weekend.
With the 7-foot-1 center missing, senior forwards Eugene Edgerson and Justin Wessel have shared his starting position and an assortment of players have compensated for the scoring.
Junior forward Michael Wright has averaged better than a double-double (17.8 points per game and 10.3 rebounds) per game while sophomore guards Gilbert Arenas and Jason Gardner have notched 16.3 points per game and 14.5 points per game respectively in the Wildcats' first six outings.
While Wright, Arenas and Gardner are on pace to improve their scoring marks from last season, they said that if making room for Woods' return means a decrease in statistics, they wouldn't have any problem cooperating.
"Loren's anxious, as are his teammates, to get him back," UA head coach Lute Olson said. "He practiced very well last week. He's continued to work hard in the weight room and his conditioning is good."
Arizona is fresh off two consecutive triple-digit outings and though Saint Mary's didn't provide much of a tune-up for the Huskies, Olson liked what he saw last weekend.
"I think we saw some progress in terms of pressure on the ball, pressure on the passes and fronting the post," Olson said. "Saturday's game was difficult to get any kind of read because of the physical mismatch. Any time a team continues to move the ball offensively in such a lopsided game and stay mentally into it I am pleased."
Aside from the ado surrounding the full assembly of Wildcats being present this weekend, Arizona is looking to avenge one of its seven loses last season.
Though Connecticut handed Arizona its first loss of last season, a 78-69 defeat in the Great Eight Tournament in Chicago, the UA players foresee the re-match having a very different outcome.
"Our heads weren't in that game and I think that even UConn knows that we should have won it," said Wright, who watched the Huskies finish the game on an 11-0 run. "With Loren back, this time around, we are going to come out with the 'W.'"
Following the UConn game, the majority of Arizona's games take on a revenge theme.
On Dec. 16, Arizona faces Illinois in Chicago, where the Fighting Illini will attempt to requite the 79-76 defeat the Wildcats handed them in the Maui Invitational championship game.
Four days later, UA returns to Tucson with an appetite to avenge the worst loss of Olson's career.
In a non-conference road-trip in the midst of the Pacific 10 Conference season that was supposed to double as an Edgerson homecoming, Louisiana State thumped Arizona 86-60 last season.
Edgerson wasn't able to make the trip due to his redshirt status and Olson immediately regretted taking that trip.
This time around, the Wildcats will have the luxury of welcoming LSU into McKale Center, where UA doesn't figure to suffer the same sort of embarrassment.
"We were in a funk that trip (last season at LSU), but I certainly wouldn't expect for our players to perform the same way come December," Olson said at Arizona's media day in October. "It will be special for Gene to play against the guys from his home state."
Three days after Christmas, the Wildcats will play host to the Bank One Fiesta Bowl Classic, which will feature Butler, Louisiana-Lafayette and Mississippi State as imposing threats to defending champions.
And just as Arizona students begin to trickle back into Tucson, the Wildcats will kick off their Pac-10 season with a homestand against California and Stanford.
Last season, UA opened its conference schedule with a trip to the Bay Area, where it defeated both the Golden Bears and the then-No. 1 Cardinal.
If Arizona wins all its games before the Jan. 4 and Jan. 6 contests, there is a distinct chance of them regaining the No. 1 ranking.
Keith Carmona can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.