The question around the Old Pueblo for nearly the past eight months has been, "What kind of team will Lute Olson put on the floor in 2003-04?"
After losing an all-star caliber team worthy of anyone's top 25 in the last year, Olson's squad begins the task of searching for its own identity this season.
Jason Gardner, Luke Walton, Rick Anderson, Will Bynum and Dennis Latimore may have departed, but in their place has emerged a squad that is already garnering comparisons to the Wildcats of 1997 - winners of Arizona's only men's basketball National Championship.
Youth is the theme this year, as utility players Fil Torres and Jason Ranne are the only two seniors on a young but talented squad. The team has just three juniors who expect to see any action, with Channing Frye, Isaiah Fox and Salim Stoudamire taking over the reins as the team's on-court leaders.
The sharp-shooting Stoudamire enters his third season as a Wildcat 3-point specialist. Quietly, Stoudamire has emerged as one of the top long-range shooters in not only the Pacific 10 Conference, but the nation as well. The Portland, Ore. native enters the 2003-04 campaign with the second-highest 3-point shooting percentage (.449) and ranked ninth in total treys made (144). The fourth Wildcat to be named Pac-10 freshman of the year, Stoudamire was nominated to this season's John R. Wooden Award Preseason All-American team along with teammate Frye. Of the 50 players selected to the Wooden award list, Arizona is one of 12 schools boasting two players from the same team.
Frye's career at the UA began with an outstanding freshman campaign as well, when the Phoenix native led the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage. The 6-foot-11 Frye should benefit the most from Olson's 4-1 scheme, a setup that will be used occasionally if not often this season, leaving four guards on the perimeter to feed Frye down low.
"It gives me a chance to manipulate the offense, set some picks," Frye said of the new offense. "It gives the guards a chance to be isolated on the sides."
Fox returns as Frye's counterpart in the paint. The 6-foot-9 junior forward/center saw his minutes diminish last season compared to his freshman campaign, but will undoubtedly see his role increase this season. Thanks in part to an off-season spent hitting the weight room, the Santa Monica native thinks he could average a double-double per game this season.
What the Wildcats lack in upperclassmen they make up for with youth and energy.
After bursting onto the NCAA scene last season, sophomores Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala become the role models for a new class set to take the court this season for Olson's squad.
Coming off a season that saw Adams and Iguodala earn All-Pac-10 freshman team honors, another Wildcat is primed to make an immediate impact as well.
Mustafa Shakur hasn't played one minute yet for the Wildcats, but is already being compared to former Arizona guard and current Atlanta Hawk Jason Terry.
The 6-foot-3 guard out of Philadelphia is set to crack the Wildcats' starting lineup, replacing All-American Jason Gardner, whose eligibility ran out last season.
Shakur's blistering speed and fast reflexes will allow the McDonald's high school All-American to create a wealth of scoring opportunities for Arizona. Shakur remains a raw talent however, and growing pains are expected along the way.
Shakur is the top recruit of the 2003-04 season, but he is complemented by another outstanding high school talent in Kirk Walters. Walters, standing 6-foot-10, has all the tools to be successful on the collegiate level and should improve with experience and give the Wildcats needed height.
Two walk-ons have been making some noise this preseason for the Wildcats, Beau Muhlbach and Matt Brase. Muhlbach, a freshman out of Lufkin, Texas, could emerge as a solid No. 2 guard off the bench.
Brase's presence gives this year's Wildcats a family appeal.
Brase, whose sister Julie was a key member of the Wildcat women's squad the past four years, comes to the UA this season from Central Arizona College to reunite with Olson, his grandfather.
With the offensive weapons and blistering speed, the key for Arizona this season will be to control the tempo of the game, according to Olson.
Olson knows he has a fast crew and said he will work the offense and defense around it.
"What we are trying to do with this year's team, because of the quickness, is that we want a higher percentage of our attempts to come off a fast break or what we call early offense," Olson said.
The main question on the Hall of Fame coach's mind will be how well the Wildcats stack up against bigger opponents in the paint. The trio of Frye, Fox and Walters should provide much of the work off the glass, while Iguodala's work on the boards this preseason has put him in position to be a dominant player down low.
Iguodala, in just his second season, has the potential to lead the Wildcats in rebounds, Olson said.
"We had a 20-minute scrimmage the other day and he had 15 rebounds in 20 minutes," Olson said of the versatile Iguodala. "He's an outstanding rebounder."
When the Wildcats aren't running an up-tempo, fast-break offense, they will be setting up the 4-1 post offense system, a setup that may benefit Adams the most.
"When we have Hassan (Adams) in the four spot, we give him a lot more freedom to move around the court," Olson said. "But if we start in set situations, he's pretty effective in that, because he's shooting the 17-footer very well right now."
The No. 4 Wildcats open the 2002-2003 season Monday night against Northern Arizona in McKale Center, with tipoff scheduled for 6:30.