UA men's basketball head coach Lute Olson walked into the media room in McKale Center with a grin on his face as senior Channing Frye sat on a chair answering questions.
Olson has plenty to grin about this season as his Wildcats look to forget last year and set their sights on a national championship.
"Some of the guys that are returning have been very impressive," Olson said at yesterday's media day gathering. "Channing has made great progress."
Gone are the questions surrounding lack of depth and injuries. Gone are the questions about lack of strength on the front line. New questions focus on which returning players will step into a leadership role this season, after many suspected a lack of guidance among players was the team's Achilles heel a year ago.
But Olson feels confident that sophomore point guard Mustafa Shakur will answer those questions.
"Mustafa has improved greatly, said Olson. "He's much more vocal, which is what you'd expect after a year." Olson said. "It's tough for any freshman to be the leader of a team, but that he thought Shakur showed good signs last year. He also added that senior shooting guard Salim Stoudamire has done a good job with leadership early in this year.
"I have a year under my belt and I really understand the total concept of the team and the things the coaches are looking for and what they want out of the team," Shakur said. "I think I'm definitely ready."
Arizona, which only had an eight-man rotation last season, added four freshmen and will again receive the services of junior power forward Isaiah Fox, who was hurt for most of last season.
"The freshmen are doing a nice job, but the biggest problem with any of the freshmen when they come in is that there are so many new things to them," said Olson.
Although the freshman class was highly touted, Olson said they still remained confused sometimes with a different system compared to their high schools. The competition factor also surprised some of the freshmen.
"It's been an eye-opener," Olson said. "It's not like pickup games anymore. People are actually playing defense and that makes it tougher. It should be an interesting year. We have great quickness on the court."
With the new addition of depth, Olson believes that the defense will improve, starting with the high intensity of Hassan Adams.
"Hassan is going to be a real force, I think, on the defensive end too. He was a huge force last year offensively, but defensively ended up being matched up inside a lot of the times. His defensive quickness along the perimeter is going to make a big difference for us."
The perimeter is stacked with quickness and now that there is competition for spots, the defensive pressure on the wings will be even tougher, Olson said.
"We'll be able to maintain that pressure throughout the game this year, as opposed to last year," said Olson.
Last season, the only big guys who contributed were Frye and freshman Ivan Radenovic, which forced Adams to play power forward. This year, the Wildcats add freshman Mohamed Tangara and will receive the contribution of a newly-built Kirk Walters, who added 25 pounds to his frame in the offseason. Fox's return is also key, but Olson said the 6-foot-9 forward has gone through the ups and downs with his foot injury and his rehabilitation.
"Isaiah's had some physical problems but they shouldn't be long term, so he has not been the factor we would have hoped," Olson said. "He needs to get in better shape. He was off for a few days and it hurt him."
Led by seniors Frye and Stoudamire, fewer up and downs must occur, Olson said, for the Wildcats to have a successful season. According to Olson, both have mentioned to him that their time here has flown by.
"Seniors aren't allowed ups and downs," he said.
A solid core of younger and older players should bode well for this year and practices have been strong so far.
"The good thing is all the guys returning have done a nice job getting ready to go and the experience is obvious in practice," Olson said.
If practice is any indicator, then that grin on Olson's face will be even wider come season's end.