By Patrick Klein
Arizona Daily Wildcat
The perception at the end
of last season, with the departure
of All-America point guard Damon Stoudamire and All-Pacific 10 Conference forward Ray Owes, was this season would be a rebuilding year for the Wildcats.
The duo had accounted for 45 percent of the Wildcat offense, most of the leadership and both of the go-to guys.
Returning for Arizona were four seniors from the most heralded recruiting class (at the time) in school history, players who had lived in the shadows of NBA picks Chris Mills, Khalid Reeves and Stoudamire. Joining them were a senior transfer who had been at three schools before arriving in Tucson, a couple of sophomores who had had promising freshman campaigns and unknown quantities in two freshman recruits.
You almost can't blame the college basketball prognosticators for picking Arizona to have a solid, if not unspectacular, season. Coaches participating in the USA TODAY/CNN poll picked the Wildcats 25th and The Associated Press didn't even pick Arizona as one of its Top 25, the first time that had happened since 1988.
So what happens? Arizona knocks out three consecutive ranked teams and wins the Preseason National Invitation Tournament, beating then-No. 17 Arkansas in Fayetteville, and then No. 16 Michigan and then-No. 5 Georgetown at Madison Square Garden. With their 4-0 record, the Wildcats found themselves at No. 4 in the nation in both polls.
In most coaches' opinions, the preseason polls are pointless. Arizona head coach Lute Olson is no exception.
"I think we'll be a very good team," Olson said. "In our seven Pac-10 titles, how many times were we picked to win? In our first, we were picked to finish eighth."
Arizona has been picked by members of the media to finish third this season, behind UCLA and Stanford.
The team has the nation's best winning percentage over the last eight years (217-46 for a .825 percentage), and if the trend continues, Olson should notch career victory number 500 sometime in February. With the Wildcats' 5-0 start, he sits at 486-187, and 295 of those victories have come at Arizona.
So maybe this won't be a rebuilding year. It also seems those in the know, didn't, when it came to ranking Arizona. But no basketball championship was ever won in December, and this team still has many questions to answer:
Is five better than one? It will be a few months before it can be determined if a more balanced attack will succeed where a one-man show of "Damon runs, Damon stops, Damon shoots" failed, which is what happened in the NCAA Tournament last March. For now, though, the players all seem to agree that getting consistent, balanced production from everyone on the floor works for them.
"We've got a lot of guys who can step up. We have a lot of balance," point guard Reggie Geary said. "We have five guys who can get 20 instead of one guy getting 20."
Said guard Miles Simon, "I think we could have four or five players in double figures every game. This year you can't key on one guy."
Whatever happens, at least it will keep more players active.
"Last year, I did what everybody else did at McKale: watch 'The Damon Stoudamire Show,'" Ben Davis said. "I didn't care because it was going in. But this year we'll have many people who can score."
In the team's 5-0 start, all five UA starters average double figures in scoring, and a sixth, Corey Williams, gets about nine per game.
In terms of a clutch player, Olson said he isn't really concerned.
"I don't think you'll see us with a go-to guy," Olson said. "It will be whoever's open. It will be a case more of circumstances."
What's the point? The point is the point guard position, always a focal point with the Wildcats. It can't be helped, since the position produced NBA players Steve Kerr, Reeves and Stoudamire in the last eight seasons. This year, the position was again in the spotlight, but not for the usual reasons.
Geary, the anointed successor to Stoudamire, was said to be too inconsistent. "He can't distribute the ball," some people said. "He can't score." Those same people were talking about the possibility of freshman Jason Terry taking over the position by mid-year, or perhaps shooting guard Simon stepping in.
Again, all the talk to this point has been misguided. Geary, 6 feet 2, 187 pounds, has shined so far this season, playing his usual ferocious defense. But the senior has also shown he can play the other end of the floor as well. He leads the team in assists, averaging 8.4 per game (although he also averages 3.8 turnovers per game) and has shown surprising touch from the field, hitting for 10 points a game. More importantly, he is shooting 53 percent from the floor, including 43 percent (6 for 14) from 3-point range. He'll need to continue these numbers for Arizona, and at times be a calming influence for the Wildcats to succeed.
While others questioned Geary, Olson had nothing but confidence in him. He understood that logging three years in practice against Reeves and Stoudamire steeled Geary for the challenge. Besides that, Olson wanted a leader playing point guard Ÿ and Geary, who was elected tri-captain as a junior, is definitely that.
"There's no question who's the leader when he's on the court," Olson said. "He's a natural leader. Reggie is, as far as leadership Ÿ verbalizing it, and the rest of it Ÿ is our strongest leader since Steve Kerr.
"He's not someone we'll be looking to do the scoring that Damon did, but Reggie has great leaping ability and is tough with the ball inside. We'll use lobs and back screens with him as opposed to flaring him out and looking for 3s like we did with Damon."
After a tough campaign last season fighting injuries and self-doubt, Geary seems to have returned to his feisty, boisterous game face of two years ago.
"100 percent, I'm back," Geary said. "It's time to go back to the same old Reggie. This year will be a challenge, but I've got a good work ethic and attitude."
Terry, 6-2, 168 pounds, could see anywhere from five to 10 minutes a game. He has explosive quickness and a nice touch from the outside, and if he cuts down on his turnovers, those minutes could increase as the year goes on.
Is this team a doughnut? No, this team definitely has a middle, and it could be the team's strength. It might have to dominate on nights when the outside shots are not falling.
Olson has said this season's Wildcats are a team that starts from "the inside out," a far cry from the last few seasons of guard-oriented offense. So far that has been true, as the 6-10, 265-pound Blair and the 6-9, 240-pound Davis has dominated the inside against Arkansas, Michigan and Georgetown. The tandem has combined for 30 points and 18.4 rebounds per game so far, and those numbers need to continue for the Wildcats to be successful.
"I'm not putting any extra pressure on myself to score because we've got a lot more balance," said Davis, who transferred to Arizona after stops at three other schools.
"Ben goes after everything," Olson said. "He plays like Pete Williams (Arizona's leading rebounder and shot blocker in 1984 and 1985). Pete went after everything and he ran the court. He didn't wait for others to do the job."
This will be the first season the two will get any sort of continuity playing alongside each other. Davis had to sit out the first semester last season because of transfer difficulties and didn't play in the finale against Arizona State or the NCAA Tournament because he was suspended for improperly accepting gifts. Blair missed the early part of the season because he violated team academic rules.
Olson said Blair could end up being one of the best big men in UA history.
"I said it after his freshman year, that he could be one of the best big guys here. It's up to him," Olson said. "If he can stay healthy, if he can keep playing hard, I don't see why he can't be the best big guy in the conference."
Backing up the duo will be freshman A.J. Bramlett, who has impressed Olson with his hustle and determination in practice against the bigger Davis and Blair.
Can I get some wings with that? Filling the holes around Geary on the perimeter will be a series of players, starting with backcourt mate Simon and forward/wingman Michael Dickerson. A 6-5, 199-pound sophomore, Simon started last season with a flash, but a dislocated thumb forced him to sit for a month. Dickerson, a 6-5, 190-pound sophomore, has called himself the team's best one-on-one player, and when he is healthy, is the Wildcats' most dangerous offensive threat.
"The most improvement you see is from freshman to sophomore year, because you know what you need to do," Olson said. "We'll see that out of Michael, and Miles is a whole lot more physical."
So far, so good. Simon is tied for the team lead in scoring with a 15.8 average, and has shown a willingness to be an offensive threat. Additionally, with any number of players counted on to be go-to guys, Simon said he will be up to the challenge.
"If we need someone to step up, I'll do it," Simon said. "I'm not afraid to take the last shot."
While an ankle sprain has slowed him the last two games, Dickerson started the season strong with a pair of 19-point games against Long Beach State and Arkansas. He showed he could do it all: drive, fill the lanes and shoot from the perimeter.
"Honestly, I think I am the best one-on-one player. I have quick feet and strength," Dickerson said. "I think I've prepared myself well. I've been told to score. I like that, that's what I do."
A pair of seniors, Corey Williams and Joe McLean, are the top reserves for Arizona, and both have been inserted in the starting lineup when Dickerson and center Joseph Blair have been out with injuries.
Olson said Williams will play both the small and power forward positions, and will work both in the post and on the perimeter. At 6-6, 212 pounds, he has the size to operate inside and, despite a 3-of-14 slump from 3-point range, he has that shot within his range. When Williams replaces either Davis or Blair, Arizona will operate with four perimeter players and one player in the post.
McLean has shown signs as of late of breaking out of a three-year slump. He scored 13 points against Georgetown, added 16 in an exhibition game, and then hit for seven against Houston. Olson said that all McLean needs is a bit of confidence, and perhaps these last few games will signal consistent production from McLean.
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