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Men's Hoops: Riding the bench

By Amanda Branam
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, February 9, 2005
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Wildcats rely on non-starters to crunch minutes, add depth

The Arizona men's basketball team had no trouble taking care of the Bay Area schools last week, winning by a combined 39 points at home. Beating the scout team in practice, however, is an entirely different story.

The scout team of freshmen guards Jesus Verdejo and Daniel Dillon, senior forward Matt Brase and freshmen forwards Mohamed Tangara and Bret Brielmaier beat the starting five in practice last week 11-7, according to Olson.

It may sound like a bad thing, but not to Olson. It means the players on that scout team - along with junior guard and sixth man Chris Rodgers, freshman guard Jawann McClellan, sophomore center Kirk Walters and junior forward Isaiah Fox - are not too far behind the starters in ability, something he did not feel was the case last year.

This year, the bench players put pressure on the starters in practice, but also add pressure to the starters in games, a huge factor in the team's success this season.

"The kind of competition that they (reserve players) create in a practice situation makes everything better," Olson said.

The ups and downs of last season have been well documented: a 20-10 overall record, 11-7 in Pacific 10 Conference play, and a first-round loss to Seton Hall in the NCAA tournament, the first time since the 1998-1999 season the Wildcats have been one-and-done in the tourney.

Coaches and players alike are quick to attribute at least some of the fault of a rough 2003-2004 season to a short bench.

Much of it, however, was not in their control.

Guard Will Bynum transferred to Georgia Tech midway through the 2002-2003 season. Forward Dennis Latimore transferred to Notre Dame before the start of last season and Fox played two games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

"No doubt, 100 percent. Our record last year was because of the lack of depth that we had," said assistant coach Josh Pastner. "It wasn't in the game situation; it was the practice situation, because that's where it hurts the most."

Last season, all five starters averaged 30 minutes or more. This season, senior guard Salim Stoudamire and senior center Channing Frye are the only starters averaging 30 minutes a game at 30.4 and 29.9, respectively. Junior forward Hassan Adams and sophomore point guard Mustafa Shakur are just under 30 and sophomore forward Ivan Radenovic averages 23 minutes a game.

Two players off the bench last season averaged double figures in minutes for the Wildcats, while four players are seeing more than 10 minutes this year.

Rodgers leads the bench players with 20.8 minutes a game while contributing seven points per contest.

"We love the contributions coming off the bench," said Frye. "We don't expect them to come in there and get 20 or 30 points. They just come in there and do their job."

In the midst of doing their job, sometimes the reserves do get 20 or 30 points in a game - 12 times this season they have scored 20 or more points.

The highest combined score for the bench in conference was 30 points against California last Thursday in McKale Center. They have contributed double digits points off the bench in seven of 11 conference games.

Their lowest total was three points in the loss to Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., on Jan. 8. Against UCLA Jan. 15 at home, they only scored five points. The Wildcats won by three.

"Yeah, it's a total difference from last year. We had such a short bench, and it really hurt us at times and this year it seems like it's really, really helping us out," said Walters, who didn't play in a game this season until Jan. 13 against USC because he was redshirting.

Radenovic, a starter this year who was one of few major contributors off the bench last year, said the bench gives them many different looks in a game, making it difficult for other teams. Also, because so many different players are coming in and out for the Wildcats, they are still fresh deep in the game, which causes problems for opponents.

"A lot of teams can't go with us for 40 minutes. They can go for the first half, but as soon as we start the second half, they cannot go with us," Radenovic said.

As always, nothing motivates more than having to ride the pine - or chairs in this case - in games.

Last season, if a starter made mistakes, Olson didn't have a bench to go to if he needed to sit a starter. This year, his hook is significantly quicker, and players know if they make a mistake, there is someone just as good getting up to check in at the scorer's table.

"We didn't have a lot of options last year," Olson said. "This year, as soon as someone's not doing what they should be doing, they're out of there."

Stoudamire says he understands that the coaches take him out to give him some rest, but it can take him out of his rhythm, or the game's rhythm.

Adams, on the other hand, says he has no problem giving way to the bench for a time.

"I know the guys who come in the game are going to have the same intensity that I have. This team thing is not about staying on the court, it's about helping the team out. You might need to sit for those two minutes but it won't hurt you. It will only help out your teammates," he said.

This "team thing" seems to be working out just fine. The reserves make the starters work harder in practice and put pressure on them to perform better in games. The bench players get better by playing against and learning from high-caliber starters.

The "team thing."

What a concept.

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