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Basketball: Cats look for new leaders

CHRIS CODUTO/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Junior Isaiah Fox (left), freshmen Kirk Walters (54) and junior Matt Brase (30) scrap for a rebound during an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at the Wildcats' season-opening practice session. Fox will be counted on to bring leadership to a team that lost three seniors after last season.
By Christopher Wuensch
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday October 22, 2003

Members of the UA men's basketball team made one thing very clear yesterday at its annual media day gathering in McKale Center: While the Wildcats do have eight players returning from last year's squad, this year's unit is anything but the same.

Despite the departure of senior leaders Luke Walton, Rick Anderson and Jason Gardner, this year's group of Wildcats may be faster, hungrier and more athletic than any squad Arizona has had in recent memory.

"This is our own team and this is going to be a discovery year," senior Jason Ranne said. "Those can be the best types of years."

The rest of the squad seemed to echo the fourth-year guard's sentiments.

"It's just an overall different team," junior center Isaiah Fox said. "We're a little more athletic, our wing guys are a little quicker than last year. We don't have Ricky, Luke and Jay here anymore. It's just a little different."

Pollsters are already taking notice of the Wildcats' talent level. Arizona has been ranked as high as No. 6 in recent preseason polls, but the players say the polls don't matter.

"We haven't really talked about it," Ranne said. "It's never been mentioned where we stack up to everyone else in the country. No one knows what to expect, including us."

Despite any preseason accolades the team may acquire, the goal for this year's squad remains the same: build on experience and reward the UA with its first national championship since 1997.

"We want to get back to where we were last year and then go from there," second-year guard Hassan Adams said.

Riding the backs of seniors Walton, Gardner and Anderson, last year's Wildcats advanced to the West Regional Championship game, only to be upset by Kansas, 78-75.

"Everyone is looking forward to going to the tournament, especially the guys who were here last year," Fox said.

Before the Wildcats make it to the big dance in March, they must prepare themselves for the four-month regular season, including a tough Pacific 10 Conference schedule. Those preparations began this summer by building strength, speed and new personal goals.

Along with lifting and running, shooting accuracy has become a high priority for most of the players.

"I've been working on my confidence and getting that feel," Adams said. "I thought I didn't shoot the ball enough or had the confidence to shoot it because I was more of a role player (last season)."

Adams, famous for his sky-high, rally-igniting dunks, has been developing his midrange jumper this summer. The 6-foot-4-inch sophomore from Los Angeles is looking to be one of the team's most productive leaders, and said he will work on whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

Fox's work on his jumpshot has the 6-foot-9-inch center thinking more minutes and bigger numbers this season. With the assistance of fellow center and junior Channing Frye, Fox said he likes the team's presence below the basket.

"I want to average a double-double," Fox said. "I think I have an opportunity to do it this year. It's up to me and Channing to be the tough rebounding guys and bangers on the team."

The Wildcats will draw strength from a strong recruiting class this season, along with added depth to their bench.

Walk-on freshman Beau Muhlbach, whose 36 points during Saturday's season-opening scrimmage wowed even his new coaches, will look to become a key role player. Arizona will also seek support from junior walk-on forward and Tucson native Matt Brase, who has spent the past two years averaging 14.6 points per game for Central Arizona College in Coolidge.

Brase should adapt to Olson's coaching scheme rather quickly; after all, the hall-of-fame coach is his grandfather.

But Olson was not the most influential person in convincing Brase to try out for the Wildcats. The 6-foot-6-inch junior said he received the most coaxing from Adams, as the two played pickup games together this summer.

"Hassan was the main guy," Brase said. "Salim helped too. The guys accept me; they want me here."

Brase said there has been no "new guy" hazing thus far.

"They're treating me great," he said. "It's a great family atmosphere here and it seems like everyone on the team is really close."

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