It was only fitting that the No. 21 Arizona men's basketball team had to make a pit stop in Albuquerque, N.M., following the team's NIT championship loss to Wake Forest in New York.
With the Wildcats (3-2) returning home to McKale Center for a non-conference matchup with Wyoming today at 7 p.m., the team's plane had to refuel on its trip back to Tucson over the weekend because of strong head winds in the same locale as the two teams' last meeting - a hard-fought 68-60 UA win in the second round of the 2002 NCAA tournament.
Consequently, some players were feeling soreness after the trip, as some like 6-foot-9 freshman forward Mohamed Tangara were forced to sit uncomfortably in a middle seat.
After what UA head coach Lute Olson called a spirited Sunday practice, the Wildcats are hopeful that they won't be feeling the after-effects of the long journey come tipoff tonight against the visiting Cowboys.
But Wyoming (3-0), led by senior point guard Jason Straight, won't give Arizona a breather either.
Today, 7 p.m. Arizona Stadium
"He's a really good penetrating point guard," Olson said. "He'll be a challenge to us as far as keeping him out of the lane."
While Straight, who played against Arizona in that 2002 contest, has struggled early this season, shooting just 24 percent from the field, redshirt sophomore Steve Leven has starred, averaging 22.0 points per game so far. Leven, from Australia, is attending his third school after briefly stopping at Auburn and Texas. Wyoming also features a strong front line, led by senior 7-footer Alex Dunn, who is averaging 12 rebounds per game.
"It's an opportunity for us to run them and push the tempo," sophomore forward Ivan Radenovic said.
The Wildcats will hope to improve on their early season shooting troubles, shooting just 38.8 percent through their first five games.
Olson said he isn't worried, however, adding that he doesn't want the focus of the players to be on shooting because it may get them thinking too much.
"We've been pretty consistent," Olson said. "We've shot it poorly against a (man-to-man-defense) and poorly against a zone."
Defensively, however, Arizona seemingly improved over its trip to New York, giving up just 60 and 63 points to Michigan and top-ranked Wake Forest, respectively, en route to a runner-up finish in the Preseason National Invitational Tournament after being blown out 78-60 by unranked Virginia.
"We learned that we know how to play defense," Radenovic said of the NIT. "That's the difference between us last year and this year. We can score 80 or 90 points. We just need to play defense like we did on this trip."
Along with the defense, another positive the Wildcats can bring back to Tucson from New York was the breakout play of freshman guard Jawann McClellan, who averaged 11 points and six rebounds per game at Madison Square Garden. McClellan's prowess on the offensive boards - he grabbed seven of 12 boards on the offensive glass over the two contests - has drawn rave reviews from Olson, and McClellan said he understands strong rebounding from the guard position is going to make him stand out.
"A lot of people don't see a 6-foot-4 guard rebounding that much," McClellan said. "I think I can do that and people just can't get a body on me. Bigger people are holding me and I'm so much quicker than they are. Plus, I have great anticipation to where the ball is. Coach Olson always tells me a great rebounder can't be boxed out. I try to use that and work hard, and I've been successful at it."
McClellan added that some may think he has progressed very quickly, but he admits he was always ready to go when Olson called on him.
"Everyone thinks I'm coming along faster than expected but if people will just be patient, everything is going to work out in the end," McClellan said.
Olson said the starting lineup will likely remain the same as well, with Radenovic and senior center Channing Frye starting down low, junior Hassan Adams on the wing and senior Salim Stoudamire and sophomore Mustafa Shakur in the backcourt.
"We'll see what happens today," he said, referring to yesterday's practice.
Stoudamire didn't start last Wednesday against Michigan, even though Olson would like to see him in there.
"I prefer for guys to get into roles and know those roles early," Olson said. "Salim's not as good as a reserve as he is a starter, but sometimes due to other factors, you have to go that way."
With power forwards Isaiah Fox and Radenovic playing inconsistently, sophomore guard Hassan Adams will likely see more playing time at that position as well, Olson said.
"It's part of our plan that Hassan will play the three and the four," Olson said.
The Wildcats dropped three spots in this week's Associated Press poll from No. 18 to No. 21 after falling to the No. 1 Demon Deacons, 63-60 in New York.