Wheeler, Polk also thrust into McKale limelight
The Wildcat men aren't the only UA basketball team that will be seeking leadership in the absence of two of last season's top performers.
Forward Krista Warren and guard Julie Brase graduated from Arizona last season, leaving a lack of experience in the Wildcats' 2003-04 starting lineup, which features just one senior.
Last season, Warren was third on the team in scoring with 11.9 points per game. She was also second on the team in rebounds and field goal percentage.
Brase was the team's passing leader with 128 assists in 2002-03. She led the Wildcats in assist/turnover ratio and was by far the best free-throw shooter on the team, making over 85 percent of her attempts from the line - 95 percent in Pacific 10 Conference play.
With Warren and Brase gone, senior starter Aimee Grzyb will be called upon to play the role of veteran leader. The 5-foot-7 guard from San Jose, Calif. will look to improve upon an impressive 2002-03 campaign in which she was second on the team in assists and 3-point percentage and fourth in points, posting10.5 per game.
Grzyb's leadership was noticeably missing from last week's final exhibition game against Athletes in Action, which upset Arizona, 81-77 in overtime in McKale Center. Grzyb missed last week's game due to a minor knee injury but is expected to play in the Wildcats' regular season opener.
"We definitely missed her tonight," said junior guard Dee-Dee Wheeler following the loss. "We missed her scoring but we definitely missed her leadership."
Wheeler will compliment Grzyb in the starting backcourt. The 5-foot-6 guard from Chicago scored 16.2 points per game last season for Arizona, leading all UA scorers in 14 of the Wildcats' 31 games.
But the majority of their opponents' attention will be devoted to sophomore center Shawntinice "Polkey" Polk. A candidate for the 2004 Olympic team, the 6-foot-5 standout from Hanford, Calif. made the Pac-10 All-Freshman first team last year, leading all UA scorers with 17.4 points per game and grabbing nearly 11 rebounds a contest.
In Warren's absence, the team is expecting Polkey to be even more dominating under the basket this season. She led the Wildcats in rebounds in all but eight games last year and, with their lack of size, could realistically lead the category in every game this season.
Rounding out the starting lineup is a pair of sophomores. Forward CoCoa Sanford has a tall task ahead of her, particularly in complementing Polk in the paint. Sanford, an Inglewood, Calif. native, played sparingly last season, attempting only 32 field goals the entire season, converting on 13.
Meanwhile, second-year guard Natalie Jones has an opportunity to make a greater impact with Arizona in her sophomore year. Jones was fifth on the team in rebounds and assists last year, and was sixth in scoring.
The question mark surrounding Jones is her shaky shooting ability. The 5-foot-10 guard from Anchorage, Alaska shot just below 30 percent from the field in 2002-03, and struggled in Arizona's last exhibition game, going just 3-of-9 from the floor.
UA head coach Joan Bonvicini said her team needs to focus on getting the ball inside and scoring in the paint rather than settling for jump shots and launching 3-pointers.
"We're not that kind of team," Bonvicini said. "We need to score around the basket instead of settling for jumpers."
Bonvicini enters her 13th straight season at Arizona's helm after spending 12 seasons as head coach at Long Beach State.
She won at least 24 games each season with the 49ers and led the team to nine Sweet 16 and two Final Four NCAA Tournament appearances.
Bonvicini has turned around a once uncompetitive UA squad. Following a 9-19 finish in her inaugural 1991-92 season, Bonvicini led the Wildcats to a plus-.500 record just two years later. The Wildcats have won at least 20 games in six of their last eight seasons, including four NCAA Tournament berths and a WNIT championship.
"I love to win, but I hate to lose even more," Bonvicini said.
The Wildcats ended the 2002-03 regular season with a stellar 22-7 record, in which they went 13-1 at home and 13-5 in the Pac-10. But their season ended much sooner than the would have liked following an upset at the hands of Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Bonvicini said her squad will brush aside the defeat in its final exhibition game and will be physically and mentally prepared for its regular season opener Saturday against Northern Arizona in McKale Center.
"I can promise you this: We'll get it started," she said.