By Monty Phan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
As the saying goes, what a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, it seemed that Tucson and the rest of the college basketball world had given up on the Arizona men's basketball team, that not even the likes of Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire could replace what were fast becoming "the Glory Days" of Sean Elliot and Steve Kerr.
Oh man, what a difference a year makes.
After back-to-back dismal appearances Ä and brief appearances, at that Ä in the NCAA Tournament, Tucson again broke out the "We Love Our Final Four Cats" bumper stickers last March as the team advanced to Charlotte, N.C., for only its second berth ever as college's four elite teams. Apparently, that's all it took for Tucsonans to forgive and forget.
The usual high expectations abound for this year's squad, a squad minus starters Reeves and Kevin Flanagan and reserve Dylan Rigdon. But with the addition of transfer Ben Davis at center and a strong incoming freshman class, the 1994-95 Wildcats hope to leave fans wondering, "Khalid who?"
"It's a team with excellent potential," Coach Lute Olson said at yesterday's men's basketball media day. "We have a nice mix of solid returnees with a lot of game experience along with some newcomers that I think are talented enough to make their presence felt.
"With Khalid gone, it changes the guard situation, where I would say the scoring would be more balanced than what it was last year. I would expect that Damon and Ray (Owes) would both give us bigger numbers than they gave us a year ago because of their experience, and the fact that with Khalid gone, there will be more shots to be divided up among the other guys on the court."
If Reeves isn't missed by the fans, he will surely be missed by the players. As half of Arizona's "En Garde" backcourt, Reeves' services were called upon more than once to bail the Wildcats out of many a crucial situation. But with Final Four experience under their belt, seniors Stoudamire Ä the tandem's other half Ä and Owes hope to fill the void left by last year's losses.
"I think I have to step up," Stoudamire said. "I think that a lot of people on our team look to me for leadership. I'm a senior now, I know what it takes to win, and I think everybody on our team knows that."
With only two seniors and six juniors, this season's team will focus on experience and leadership. If last year's success proved anything, it was that the players truly fed off each other's success. In reality, the team has somewhat of a leadership-by-committee, everyone leads in a different way.
"We have a lot of new young people, who need some people to step up experience-wise and leadership-wise as far as just setting examples on what we do," center Joseph Blair said. "For example, they really don't know what we do in practice so you have to set an example and be the first one to jump up in line and show them what we do."
Said Owes: "We have a lot of guys with experience, like the four starters from last year that are back. We all have the same amount of experience, Damon probably
even more. So I think all four of us are going to be leaders."
"It seems to be a group that gets along well, I think that the squad chemistry will be excellent," Olson said. "I feel it'll be a solid leadership group. Damon has become more vocal each year, Ray is not going to say a lot, but I think he'll give us the kind of effort where he'll lead with his example. And (junior guard) Reggie (Geary) is a nice mix with those two, he's far and away the most vocal of the group. I think in the past he's provided excellent on-the-court leadership with his effort and his competitiveness."
Along with Owes, Stoudamire and Blair, the fourth starter to return this year is Geary, the team's resident Minister of Defense. The vocal leader of the team, Geary hopes to pick up some of the 24.2 points per game left open by Reeves' absence.
"I'm definitely going to shoot a lot more this year, I want everybody to know that," Geary said. "I'm going to shoot the ball more. I really worked hard on that."
With practice having just started, questions still remain about who will play where, as Olson himself still has to get a good look at where his team is at the moment. But after a summer in which the Wildcats did not have to answer questions about a disappointing postseason, the team should definitely be more relaxed.
What a difference a year makes.
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