TOP 25 COUNTDOWN: No. 1 Arizona

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Frank Burlison

One might say that Lute Olson is the Dick Clark of the college basketball coaching set. He just keeps spinning those hits and introducing some soon-to-be national stars to an adoring audience. Welcome to Hoopstand, produced and hosted by the man who apparently drank deeply from the same spring from which the legendary impresario of American Bandstand ("It's got a great beat and we can dance to it") must have quenched his thirst back in the days when color television was a rumor. Is there a 68-year-old anywhere today, minus those aided by a few well placed drops of Grecian Formula and a deft plastic surgeon, who looks any younger or more vibrant than does Olson? He's been one of the sport's most successful coaches since making his debut on the Division I level 29 years ago with a team that was to go 24-2 before he moved on to Iowa the following spring. He took the Hawkeyes to the 1980 Final Four before heading back West in 1984 to turn Tucson into one of college basketball's hottest of spots. He's just 29 short of 500 victories (against 143 losses) after 19 seasons at the University of Arizona and is going to put a team on the floor in a few weeks that seems capable of getting halfway to 1,000 at some point in March. The man has never had a roster any deeper in players who were either blessed with remarkable basketball skills or possessing eye-popping athleticism. And he's never before been sitting on commitments from two of the top four high school players in a senior class, prospects who will once again make his program almost obscenely loaded with talent in an era when rosters from other high profile schools are routinely cut to ribbons by the NBA draft. Most men his age aren't planning their retirements. They're already living them. Not Olson. Not when there remain on-court challenges, players to groom and teams to polish in preparation for games against some of the best programs and coaches in the sport. Five years ago, after the 1997 Wildcats won his only national title by knocking off North Carolina and then in a three-day stretch in New Jersey, prospects that Olson and his staff were pursuing were told by rival recruiters that Olson's retirement was imminent. Today, the Wildcats' fifth Final Four trip and a second national crowd seem much more likely scenarios come the spring. Said , one of the standouts on this Arizona team and the son of the All-America center who was ruling the hoops roost with John Wooden at when Olson was at : "I don't see him leaving anytime soon." And why should he? He, by all accounts, couldn't be any healthier or more physically fit (he works out daily, without fail, no matter his locale). His program couldn't be anymore fit, either. His Wildcats enter the 2002-03 season at No. 1 in the Top 25, with five returning starters from a team that won the Pac-10 Tournament title last March before losing to eventual Final Four team Oklahoma in a Sweet 16 game. Wife and high school sweetheart Bobbi, with whom he planned to spend retirement traveling the world when they weren't surrounded by their children, grandchildren and, ultimately, great-children, died in January, almost two years ago, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. But he never spoke, publicly, of a retirement timeline while his wife was alive and he isn't ready to do so now. One thing seems obvious, though: He's enjoying coaching now every bit as much as he did 10, 20 or even 29 years ago. "This is a fun group to be around," he said, of a roster that includes just three seniors sprinkled amongst five sophomores and four freshmen. "For one thing, they are nice young people. The second thing is that the competition level with this team is such that, no matter what we're doing, be it a scrimmage or drill work, they want to get after people." His team's Nov. 23 opener in Tucson against No. 8 might have been a month away. But his mind was already churning and visualizing the myriad of ways in which he was going to measure just how good the team will be at the end of November, and to see what it might be capable of doing by mid-March. That's NCAA tournament, sudden-elimination time. Not a time for retiring sorts. "Last year at this time," he said, referring to now seniors , and , "we only had three guys who knew what was going on. "Now, we are having far and away the most competitive practices we've had here. We've never had this kind of depth." At the forefront of that new depth step freshmen Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala — via Los Angeles and Springfield, Ill., respectively — who, very conservatively, were two of the 20 most promising members of the national prep class of 2002. Want to drop them in a "mold"? Well, visualize Michael Dickerson and as freshmen, and you'll get a feel for why Olson is thinking about taking advantage of their long arms, quick hands and even quicker feet to extend his team's defensive pressure to three-quarters and full court this season. The worst thing either does right now is jump shot the ball consistently. That will come with time because they'll work at it. The innate things they bring to the McKale Center, well, those are things that don't get drilled into you, no matter how good the coach. As coaches are found of saying so succinctly, Adams and Iguodala (who bailed on his commitment to Arkansas last spring when Nolan Richardson was canned) are athletes. "I honestly thought they were the two best 'wings' (big guard/small forward types) in the country last season," Olson said. "We've had some amazing wings here in the past but never two likes those guys at the same time." And by NCAA rules, he's not even allowed to yet comment on two of his commitments from the Class of 2003, forward Ndudi Ebi (Houston) and point guard Mustafa Shakur (Philadelphia), who will sign letters of intent in a couple of weeks with the Wildcats. No, this isn't a coach who is counting the days until stretching out in a hammock is the most challenging things he does on some afternoons. "I have no idea how long (he intends to keep coaching)," he said. "As long as I'm healthy, have the energy and enjoy what I'm doing, there's no reason to look ahead (to the day he hangs it up)." And, why should he not continue to have a ball? After all, it's got a great beat. You might even been able to dance to it ... maybe all the way to , too.

No. 1 Arizona

Coach: Lute Olson (20th season at Arizona, 471-143) 2001-02 record: 24-10 (tie for 2nd Pac-10 regular season; Pac-10 tourney champion; Lost to Oklahoma, 88-67, West Regional Sweet 16)

Taking stock of the losses: They won't be missed, other than by their closest buddies on the team: (1.0 points per game) and walk-on (1.1 ppg). They're back: (15.7 ppg, 7.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game) and (20.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg and 4.6 apg) are returning All-Pac-10 players. Both will be All-Americas this season and should be on voters' short lists of John R. Wooden Award candidates. The third returning senior starter (and the only other senior scholarship player on the roster) is (12.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 1.4 apg), whose father played for Lute Olson at Long Beach City College in 1969-71 and is now the coach at LBCC. If Walton jump shot the ball as well as does Anderson (.422 on 3's as a junior), Walton would be considered the Wooden trophy front-runner. The coaches voted Salim Stoudamire (12.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg and 1.1 apg) the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year, in large parts because of his perimeter shooting (.453 on 3's) and on-the-ball defense. As you may have already read only three dozen times, he's the cousin of the Portland Trailblazers Damon Stoudamire, who is a branch on Olson's Family Tree of Point Guards. The 2001-02 starter with the tallest ceiling (literally and figuratively) for improvement is Channing Frye (9.5 ppg and 6.3 rpg). He'll end up being the third-best in-state player (No's. 1 and 2 being, for those minus an encyclopedic knowledge of Arizona high school basketball, Sean Elliott and Mike Bibby) to matriculate to the U of A during the Olson Era. If he sticks around Tucson long enough, he'll be as good as any big player in the college game some day. Three other members of the high school class of 2001 also return and should get extensive playing time, especially with the number of lopsided victories that will be sprinkled throughout the Arizona schedule, with-in and outside of Pac-10 competition. Isaiah Fox (4.4 ppg and 4.0 rpg) started nine times as a freshman and, at about 265 and some change, will use his bulk in the low post when Frye isn't quite frisky enough to cope with any strong-arming opponent. Forward Dennis Latimore (1.9 ppg and 2.5 rpg) has slimmed down some from a year ago and, along with fellow sophomore Will Bynum (6.4 ppg and 1.5 rpg), is the most improved player on the squad over the course of the off-season. Bynum seems to have finally comprehended that the terms "point guard" and "lead guard" don't mean that player is supposed to have a lot of 'points' or 'lead' the team in scoring.

Projected lineup: C-Channing Frye (6-10, So.), PF-Rick Anderson (6-8, Sr.), SF-Luke Walton (6-8, Sr.), SG-Salim Stoudamire (6-1, So.), PG-Jason Gardner (5-10, Sr.) Olson is anxious to find out if: he can extend his defense all over the court and, also with the much enhanced quality of depth, courtesy a four-member freshman class, get out in transition, offensively, even more frequently than they did last season.'s take on the Wildcats: This is easily the deepest group of players Lute Olson has had during any one season. Freshmen Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala are nearly off anyone's chart and are in the same universe as such with former Wildcat and current New Jersey Net . And, by March, Channing Frye could be the closest thing in the Pac-10 to a "dominant" post player. How long will this team play in March? The addition of Adams and Iguodala, and the improvement of the five starters since last March, means that this should be a much superior team to the one that bopped its way through the Pac-10 tourney. If that proves the case, anyone planning on sending the Wildcats home to Tucson before a trek to better be good — as in "very, very" good. Frank Burlison can be reached at his e-mail address:
Tagged: Arizona, UCLA, Iowa, New Orleans, Western Kentucky, North Carolina, Long Beach State, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Portland

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