By Tom Knauer
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, November 19, 2004
Throughout their ill-fated run to the NBA Finals last season, the Los Angeles Lakers relied yet again on their Dynamic Duo. Guard Kobe Bryant and center Shaquille O'Neal, much as they had during the team's last few playoff (read: title) runs, dominated at times with an unrivaled inside-outside game but floundered when facing similar, deeper personnel.
This famously occurred in May in Games 2 and 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Minnesota Timberwolves. 'Wolves guards Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, along with a spry, supercharged Kevin Garnett in the post, frustrated the Lakers and negated the efforts of their two top scorers. Though Los Angeles would win the series in six games, setting the stage for a Detroit-sized dismantling in the Finals, the team prevailed merely by the sparks provided by guard Kareem Rush (6-of-7 from beyond the arc in Game 6) and forward Luke Walton, an Arizona alum.
It's fitting, then, that this year's UA women's hoops team will in many ways operate like the Lakers of seasons past. Patrolling the paint will be a strong, intimidating center, here in junior Shawntinice Polk. Perusing the perimeter will be a playmaking, strong-defending guard, here in senior point Dee-Dee Wheeler. Both players have come to personify the program in their two years together. Both have dominated in such equal fashion as to be named co-team Most Valuable Players in consecutive seasons. Both players are marching up the team's all-time scoring list, and it's safe to say that both players will determine whether the Wildcats can finally take sole possession of the Pacific 10 Conference title.
But hark - are those jump shots sounding in the wings?
In this season's first two games, Polk and Wheeler were more or less themselves. Polk's 17.5 points per game average is slightly better than that of her breakout freshman campaign, and her 14 rebounds per contest are well above her two-year mean.
Wheeler, however, is off to a relatively slow start. Her 11.0 scoring average through the first two games of the preseason Women's National Invitational Tournament - on 32.1 percent shooting - would constitute a career low if spread over the entire season. Yet her passing, rebounding and stealing numbers are all up from last season.
It's fitting that this years UA women's hoops team will in many ways operate like the Lakers of seasons past.
What's going on?
Meet Shannon Hobson and Jessica Arnold.
Like Rush and Walton in June's playoffs, Hobson and Arnold will give Arizona what it needs when it needs it. Unlike in 2003-2004, when senior guard Aimee Grzyb was the team's only other player to score in double digits, these Wildcats now have four players worthy (like James, perhaps) of drawing their opponents' ire. Hobson solidifies the frontcourt with strong work on the boards (6.5 per game), and her ability to take charge when necessary - see her team-high 21-point, seven-rebound performance against St. Mary's in Arizona's season opener - will help ease the pressure on her veteran teammates, if not reduce a double-team or two.
Arnold is also up to the task. The Tucson freshman hit five of six three-point attempts against the Gaels and finished with 17 points in 29 minutes. This season, Arnold is hitting a Kerr-like 45 percent of her threes, a number that will surely fade but still points to her potential. Figure in that 5-foot-8 freshman point guard Ashley Whisonant is still just returning from injury, and it's clear that the Wildcats will have no problem compensating for the losses of Polk and Wheeler, one of which must occur this summer.
For the time being, though, the team will focus on the present. After WNIT play wraps up this week, Arizona will have less than a month to prepare for its first Pac-10 title defense. Opponents tend to nip at the feet of their masters, and so a high-scoring Wildcat squad (77.5 through a pair of contests) will have a lot of work to do to fend off UCLA and Stanford, particularly in a conference sporting five or six Tournament-ready teams.
As they say in Laker Land, it's showtime.
- Tom Knauer is a journalism sophomore. He can be reached at email@example.com.