By Roman Veytsman
KEVIN B. KLAUS/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Senior center Channing Frye blocks Utah State's Jaycee Carroll's shot during Arizona's first-round win over the Aggies. The Wildcats will face Oklahoma State Thursday in Chicago.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
The Arizona Wildcats are one of only four teams to win both of their games by double digits, outscoring Utah State by 13 and the University of Alabama at Birmingham by 22.
Head coach Lute Olson thinks Arizona is playing their best basketball of the season heading into the Chicago Regional.
"We're very pleased right now to be going on to the Sweet 16, and we're also very pleased with the way we're playing right now," Olson said. "I think we're playing the best we have played."
The Wildcats are in the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in the last 10 years and have made it to the regional semifinal 12 times.
As a No. 3 seed, Arizona is 6-3 overall, having been seeded at that spot in 2002, 1996 and 1992.
"Our confidence goes up a little bit," senior center Channing Frye said of making it to the Sweet 16. "But we're not going to sit and gloat or sit here and get comfortable. We're always trying to get better, and I still think there's some room for improvement."
No success in Chicago
Arizona is 4-0 playing in Boise, Idaho, during the NCAA Tournament, but Chicago is a completely different story.
Not only have the Wildcats won only one of five games in the Chicago area, but their likely opponents live a lot closer to the arena.
While Oklahoma State is not quite a car ride away, being more than 750 miles out of the way, the Fighting Illini of Illinois are just a 2 1/2-hour bus ride away.
"If Illinois wins and we win our game, it's like playing Illinois at home pretty much," Frye said.
Arizona lost the regional finals in 1999 and 1997 at the United Center, and lost again in 2000 in a regular-season game against Illinois. The Wildcats' last and only win was in 1978 when they defeated Northwestern.
The Arizona players are still excited to play in the Windy City and are hopeful the support will still be there.
"We're playing in a great city like Chicago where Michael Jordan played," freshman guard Jawann McClellan said.
"Our real fans always support us no matter where we go. Even if they can't make it out to Chicago, then they can watch us on TV," Frye added.
The importance of family
Sophomore forward Kirk Walters and McClellan will both have family in Chicago watching them play.
Walters, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich., and rooted for Michigan and Michigan State growing up, said he was excited about playing in the Midwest.
"It's nice going back home, being back in the Midwest. It'll be fun to play out there," he said. "I'm trying to get a couple of extra tickets for family and my high school coaches.
McClellan, who is from Houston, said he might be even too pumped because his family will be watching him play for the first time as a college player.
"I haven't seen them in a long time," he said. "I was hoping we'd be in the Austin bracket, but that didn't work out."
Back from spring break shortly
While everyone at Arizona came back from spring break for good, the basketball team will be back on the road after only one day of class. With bumps and bruises and tired bodies, the Wildcats plan to get some rest and do some reading for classes.
"It's good to see my teachers so they know that yes, I still do go here," Frye said.
For a freshman like McClellan, the one day of classes is a complete change from last year.
"It's really different from high school when you have a whole week to prepare and then leave again," he said. "To just come up to Tucson and then you have to leave again, it's very different but that's how it is. It's the NCAA Tournament and it's a great experience."
The pressure of school just adds to the pressures of the tournament, but Frye is appreciative of his teachers' patience.
"I have to thank my teachers for their understanding and their appreciation of what we're doing," Frye said.
Keeping it in the Pacific-10
With two teams still remaining in the Pacific 10 Conference - Washington and Arizona - the rivalry between the two schools has turned more into a friendship.
After the Huskies walked off the floor following their win over Pacific, Nate Robinson and a few other players whispered encouraging words to the Wildcats in layup lines, and the Husky faithful even cheered for Arizona.
"Us and Washington haven't had a close game yet, and a lot of these other teams are struggling," McClellan said. "It's war during league play, but you cheer each other on because you want to represent your conference."
Watching the tournament
The Arizona team was so enthralled at the airport watching the double-overtime game between Wake Forest and West Virginia that they almost missed their flight.
Well, not quite.
The flight was chartered and the pilot waited for the game to be over before the team took off, but the game and the tournament has the team quite interested.
"Everybody's talking about why the games are so good this year, but it's probably because as soon as we lost last year, we didn't watch any of the tournament," Frye said.
This year, however, the tournament has the Wildcats as excited as they were when they were kids watching the games.
"With Bucknell winning, everybody ran out of their rooms and was like, 'Did you see that? Did you see that?'" Frye said.
"We just have a lot of fun watching these teams that they predicted to be in the Final Four and they're going down," added McClellan. "It's just funny because a lot of people had us picked to lose to Utah State in the first round. I just find it real funny that Kansas and Syracuse went down."