Leader of the Pac?

Maybe Arizona men's basketball coach Lute Olson got the idea back in

October, when the Phoenix Suns played an exhibition game at

McKale Center.

One of the deepest teams in the NBA, the Suns have used at least 10 different lineups this season. But who can blame them? With players like Charles Barkley, Danny Manning, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle, they're practically their own All-Star team.

With players like All-America candidate Damon Stoudamire, Reggie Geary, Ray Owes and Ben Davis, the Wildcats have shown they may indeed be their own all-conference team. One can almost see Olson sitting in the stands, fixing a gaze at Paul Westphal's bench, and saying to himself, "Hmm ... that gives me an idea ..."

Perhaps taking a cue from its professional neighbors to the north, Olson has used seven different sets of starting lineups this season, in only 15 games.

It's this versatility that has Arizona watchers talking. Though some team members insist the team is no deeper than prior squads, one thing is indeed clear to those close to the team: Olson has been quite generous with playing time.

"Coach (Olson) has let so many people play," Stoudamire said. "The whole coaching philosophy has changed since I was a freshman. I'd love to be a freshman again, the way coach is giving all the freshmen playing time and stuff. Boy, he's being real generous to them."

Olson's arsenal of players makes the Wildcats again one of the most formidable teams in the conference. But that's no secret. No, the secret lies in the manner in which Arizona goes about trying to win its eighth Pacific 10 Conference title in 10 years. That's no small feat, considering the consensus among coaches is that the Pac-10 is the strongest it's been in recent memory.

"Certainly it's the toughest from top to bottom that it's been in the league, certainly it's the toughest in the 12 years that I've been here," Olson said. "There are a lot of good teams in the league."

After last season, however, the goal isn't a mere conference championship. The Wildcats have proved they can do that. Like the Suns, they want the whole thing runner-up is not an option anymore. Consequently, the team has coining the rallying cry "Play on Monday," in reference to the championship game's tradition of taking place on a Monday. Arizona has yet to make it past the Saturday before.

But two questions still remain: Are they as good as last year? Are they ready?

"I think they have a shot at being as good as last year," Olson said. "I think every guy out there is going to be better than he was last year."

"We've got people that have to be ready to play regardless if they're starting or not," Stoudamire said. "Everybody realizes that, and that's why you see so many different lineup changes and you see when people get the call they're ready to step up to the challenge."

Beyond Stoudamire, Geary and Owes who have started every game this season things become jumbled. The two remaining positions are mainly reserved for whoever earns them in practice, making those sessions every bit as intense as the real thing. The key to it all, though, is versatility. Above all, perhaps, that's what Arizona possesses most.

"I think we're very versatile," Blair said. "We can go with speed, or we can go with size. We can have the triangle inside with the three big men or we can have pretty much four guards on the floor. There's so many different things we can do."

"We're really not settled on (a starting lineup)," Olson said. "We're going to be going eight or nine deep, sometimes 10. I don't think we're going to be set in stone as we've been in the past with set starters. It may depend on the week."

While the lineup may not be set in stone, there's certainly a position that is: namely, point guard. Simply put, no one backs up Stoudamire, for two reasons. One, there may not be a player who can back him up, and two, he averages 36 minutes a game, so even if there was someone behind him, they wouldn't get that much playing time.

Though Stoudamire may sound something like Superman, he does get a lot of help. Freshman Michael Dickerson has proven to be almost every bit as stingy as Geary when it comes to defense. Junior Joe McLean has also been pulled from up Olson's sleeve, as he has been used as both a two-guard and in the forward spot this year. And when those two don't fit the bill, there's always junior Corey Williams, who started the year at the three position. Again, versatility.

"(We're) about as versatile as you can get," Geary said. "We can go big, with the triangle offense, we can go small, we can do anything we want to do. That makes the team so great capable people."

Down low, Ray Owes has been the main fixture at the power forward position. He combines with centers Joseph Blair and Davis to form one of the best front lines in the league. The beauty of it, however, is that Arizona only needs two on the court at one time and if one gets in foul trouble, or worse, injured, sophomore Jarvis Kelley is patiently waiting in the wings.

"We've got a lot of people that can play a lot of different positions," Davis said. "I don't think there will ever be a game where foul trouble will offset everything."

"It's not the case of having three quick guys and then two plodders," Olson said. "That's not the case at all. They run the court as well as any front line around, I think. And the big guys know if they'll run, that we've got people that'll get them the ball."

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