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Wildcats Set for First Round Challenge

By Roman Vetysman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, March 17, 2005

BOISE, ID. - Everything the Arizona men's basketball team has done better this year could be overturned with one game.

Last year's first round loss in the NCAA tournament still generates bad memories, and the No. 3 seed Wildcats (27-6, 15-3 Pacific 10 Conference) are determined to change those memories into more pleasant ones when it takes on No.14 seed Utah State (24-7, 13-5) in Boise, Idaho Thursday at 5:20 p.m., mountain time.

The game will be televised regionally by CBS.

"With the ups and downs we had last year, it was kind of hard," junior forward Hassan Adams said. The difference this year according to Adams is that "everybody's focused, on the same page, and everybody's trying to get it done."

While the Wildcats have improved their seeding six spots since last year's season-ending loss to Seton Hall in Raleigh, N.C., their first round match up this year should be no cake walk.

Utah State has had seven straight winning seasons under coach Stew Morrill and has made the NCAA Tournament four of the last six seasons.

The Aggies gave No.2 seed Kansas a run for their money two years ago while they were a No.15 seed, losing by just three points, 64-61.

This season, Utah State finished second in the Big West but won the conference tournament to garner an NCAA birth. Two of the Aggies' losses in conference play came to this season's mid-major power Pacific, to which they lost by one at home and by seven in a double overtime game on the road.

"They really play hard," head coach Lute Olson. "The cuts are hard and when you watch them on offense its really like watching Stanford with (Josh) Childress and (Matt) Lottich.

Utah State plays similarly to that Cardinal team, which swept the Wildcats last season and even more similarly in tempo to Washington State, a team which Arizona struggled mightily with this year.

The Aggies employ a 2-3 zone defense according to Olson, which looks like a 1-2-2 but switches on the first pass, and has caused opponents to average just 57.7 points per game this season.

"We prefer an up tempo game, but sometimes it's not, so we have to deal with it," senior guard Salim Stoudamire said.

Arizona will also have to deal with Big West freshman of the year Jaycee Carroll who averaged 14.6 points per game. The Aggies other big threat is 6-foot-8 forward Spencer Nelson who was the team's leading scorer and rebounder.

The Wildcats know what they have to do this year to avoid last year's early exit and senior center Channing Frye believes the NCAA tournament will raise the Wildcats level of play.

"The NCAA is going to elevate our game," he said. "We're not saying we're going to be out there playing perfect basketball but we're going to be out there playing at a different level."

Olson plans to cut down his rotation to about eight players for the tournament with freshman forward Jawann McClellan likely coming off the bench first because of the strides he's made during the latter part of the year.

McClellan averaged 11.3 points in 26.3 minutes during the Pac-10 tournament and Frye said he no longer considers him or the other first year players freshmen.

"I think right now you can consider Jawann, and Jesus, and all of them sophomores. They understand their roles now. When they come off the bench they need to be aggressive and attack," Frye said.

Another key bench player could be Chris Rodgers, whose play has floundered recently. Rodgers has scored just 12 points in his last four games, including zero against Washington, but Olson knows Rodgers needs to be a contributor during the tournament.

"We need to get Chris back on track," Olson said.

For the Wildcats to get back on track, they will need to get over last year's first round loss and last week's loss to Washington, and at least advance past the first round this year.

"We have a whole new season to think of," Frye said. "We can't dwell on it and I think we're excited about playing Utah State."

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