Centers' stage

By Brett Fera
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, November 21, 2003

This time around, its all about the ones in the middle

Two towering figures stand out amidst the horizon hovering over the Arizona basketball program's path to success.

A duo unmatched in height, unparalleled in skill, unchallenged in wit.

They make up a one-two punch with the pure, raw talent to float in the paint like butterflies. A one-two punch that makes its opponents feel like they've got a couple of butterflies swimming in their stomachs.

But is it possible that the biggest and baddest of the Wildcats' two big men on campus actually isn't even a man at all?

Is it true that the most dominant center in the state of Arizona - or in all of college basketball, for that matter - doesn't play in Tempe, or for legendary head coach Lute Olson, even though she thinks she could?

If you ask UA women's hoops center Shawntinice Polk, that's exactly what you'll hear.

"I could hang with them," said the 6-foot-5 Polk of the thought of playing with the perennially contending UA men's hoops squad. "They just don't ever want to let me play because they're scared."

Pose the same idea to the other half of Arizona's pair of do-it-all-Americans, men's basketball center Channing Frye, and the answer would probably be completely on the other side of the spectrum.

"I remember playing her when she first got here and I dunked all over her," said Frye, who towers over most modern-day college centers at 6-foot-11. "I wasn't playing real hard and she was like, 'Don't be soft on me because I'm a girl.'"

"He's a liar," said Polkey, as she prefers for her friends to call her. "He dunked on me one time, but that's because somebody set a screen on me. He's just scared to admit that I beat him by two."

Polk and Frye no longer appear as the frightening giants their numbers say they are, but rather as a couple of kids who don't yet know what it means to share - as in sharing the spotlight as the two brightest stars in Arizona's athletic repertoire.

Frye is certain, however, that this isn't the case, as his version of the story is comically - yet expectedly - a different take altogether.

"I just went to work on her. She kind of laughs at me every time I talk to her about it, because I think I dunked on her like nine times," Frye said. "Seriously though, she's really pretty good."

No matter who dunked on whom, or who wins when, Channing and Polkey are on a mission this season to send a message to their Pacific 10 Conference opponents and the rest of the college basketball landscape. The message: If anyone plans for a pit stop through the desert on their way to the Final Four this season, they'd better be prepared to run into a couple of big road blocks along the way.

Along the way to being named among the nation's elite college players - both Polk and Frye are preseason nominees for the John R. Wooden Award, given annually to college basketball's best male and female player - the pair has managed to establish a unique friendship, built on a love for basketball, and a respect for what it takes to be a go-to guy - or gal.

"It's always fun to just talk to her about knee pains when we were growing up and how much more food we ate than others," Frye said of the perils of childhood as a big kid. "It's just little things like that I really appreciate."

Polk, the tallest and youngest of seven children, said she also values her friendship with Frye, even if it occurred by default.

"We can spot each other around campus from far away," Polk said. "I always see him and am yelling (to him) across a bunch of people."

"We always gotta stick up for the big guys and girls," Frye added.

Looking into the center

For the first time in recent memory, Arizona hoops might actually shake its "Point Guard U" moniker - if only for a short while.

In the meantime, however, it's all about who's in the middle this year for the No. 22 Wildcat women and fourth-ranked UA men - two programs that hope to be in the center of it all when March Madness turns to April gladness.

Frye and Polk are the ones standing at center stage with the potential to be as dominant as any of their counterparts from coast to coast.

Frye may have averaged only 12.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game last season - amidst a Wildcat lineup that saw six players come close to averaging double figures in points - but he thinks he's ready to prove to the doubters that he's developed his game into much more than just shot blocking and lay-ins.

The Phoenix native will have plenty of opportunities to prove it as well, as UA men's basketball head coach Lute Olson is prepared to often use a set of four perimeter players, with Frye being the Wildcats' lone post player on the floor - a role that Frye said he can't wait to embrace.

"I like it. It's just me and them," Frye said. "The floor is so spread wide open. I can just kick in and hopefully get five or six assists a night. That'd be nice."

Polkey's no different, administering a punishing inside-out game, dominating the traditionally small-in-stature environment of women's college basketball by averaging a blistering 17.4 points per game during just her first season on the court for Arizona. Polk chipped in another 10 rebounds per game to boot, earning her four Pac-10 Player of the Week awards, the conference freshman of the year distinction, and an honorable mention Associated Press All-America nod in 2002-03.

Even with the 20-year old's gaudy freshman numbers, Polk - who used her redshirt during the 2001-2002 season after arriving in Tucson from Hanford (Calif.) High School because of academic complications - is prepared to elevate her game to another level and quiet the naysayers who say she's another one-dimensional post player.

"They tell me I have an ugly shot. They think I don't have an outside game, but I do," Polk said, angered by the thought that she might have a single flaw in her game. "I can shoot and nobody notices."

Polk hit a snag at the beginning of her collegiate career, failing to qualify academically, which forced her to sit out that first season.

But the same determination that helped mold her into one of the nation's best players at any position has allowed her to bring her studies full circle as well.

"I think that helped me out a lot," Polk said of having to sit out a year. "I got to concentrate a lot on not only school, but on getting in shape and getting ready for what college was going to have for me."

"It's a whole different game than high school," she added.

Polkey's teammates may rely on her for a double-double each game on the court, but the communication major doesn't hide how much she depends on them during the rest of the week.

"Especially when we start traveling, school gets a lot harder, but I have tutors and my teammates that stay on top of me to keep me getting my school work done," Polk said. "I think that helps me out a lot on the court because I'm not stressing about things that might affect how I play."

No 'I' in Frye; no 'me' in Polkey

Channing and Polkey aren't the first athletes to say that the individual awards aren't important, even if they are the latest.

That doesn't necessarily mean they aren't sincere, however; only that they might have to prove it on the court instead.

"Our team's going to be really good," Polk said. "I'd appreciate it if people don't look down on us. We're a young team but we're going to surprise some people."


Polk's most recent jump across the road of unselfishness comes from how she talks about her teammates - namely, All-Pac-10 point guard Dee-Dee Wheeler.

"The team doesn't revolve around Polkey," she said. "There are a lot of people that do more that don't get recognized."

Frye, who knows what it's like to come within a shot of reaching the Final Four, agreed that true teamwork is the only way to keep that horrific April moment from replaying itself.

"I think it's not competitive (between us) about awards and accolades. I think we're more focused on team things instead of individual," Frye said. "I think because of that, that's how we get where we need to go and that's why we're successful."

As a pair of standout basketball players at one of the nation's top athletic schools, it wouldn't be unfair to expect either player to feel the need to grow up fast - especially Frye, whose NBA stock seems to be going up by the day.

Polk assures that's nothing to worry about yet, though.

"We're just like big kids off the court," she said.

Just two big kids enjoying life and enjoying the game they love - even if they still haven't learned how to play nice and share.