Wildcats enjoying rebound season
The progress of Arizona's return to prominence shows up on the court, in the standings and, for the first time in more than three years, in the rankings.
Yep, the Wildcats are back in The Associated Press poll - at No. 21 - for the first time since the last day of 2007, the latest sign they might finally be over the chaos that sent the tradition-rich program backpedaling.
''It's always good for our team, for any team,'' Arizona coach Sean Miller said. ''I think players, coaches, you feel good about the fact that you've success and it's being recognized. It's not necessarily the end-all or our goal, but it does make anybody who is part of what we're doing feel good.''
What Arizona's doing is trying to right a program that had been knocked down a few rungs in recent years.
The Wildcats went through more coaching turmoil in three years than some programs have in a decade, missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 26 years last season and were hit with NCAA sanctions because of actions by former coaching staffs.
It wasn't quite full-blown rebuilding mode. Arizona still had talented players - Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill from the 2008-09 team went on to the NBA - and the fan base, as good as any in the country, continued to provide a decisive home-court advantage.
Still, just scraping by doesn't cut it with a program like Arizona's.
Now, after those three not-what-we-expect seasons that included four coaches - it started with Lute Olson's leave one season, retirement the next - Arizona (19-4, 8-2) is back atop the Pac-10 standings and appears to be climbing toward its familiar spot among college basketball's upper echelon.
''It's crazy that we have come so far from last year,'' Wildcats junior guard Kyle Fogg said. ''We like being in the Top 25, but we feel we can get even better, fix the little things and get higher in those rankings.''
At this point, there's no reason to think the Wildcats won't.
They're balanced, with players like Fogg, Kevin Parrom and Brandon Lavender able to score points in bunches when they need to. They have players like Jamelle Horne, Jesse Perry and Solomon Hill who can score and are also willing to do the little things, like rebound and play defense.
Their point guard, sophomore Lamont ''MoMo'' Jones, has become much more consistent and freshman backup Jordin Mayes has made sure there are no drop-offs with the second unit.
Oh, and they have Derrick Williams.
Last season's Pac-10 freshman of the year has become a national player of the year candidate, an agile 6-foot-8 forward who can play inside or out, rebounds with ferocity and is one of the country's most efficient players.
An average perimeter shooter as a freshman, he's been dead-on from 3-point range this season, hitting a remarkable 24 of 35, which would be the best percentage in the nation if he had enough attempts.
Williams also leads Arizona with 19.9 points while taking fewer than 10 shots per game, making the most of his chances by shooting 63 percent from the field and getting to the free throw line nine times a game, in part because teams can't stop him otherwise.
''He's the best in the conference, I think,'' Southern California forward Nikola Vucevic said. ''He can step up and shoot, he can hit 3s and he can dribble. He is a very dynamic player.''
And somewhat ambidextrous, which has come in handy over the past three games.
Always good at shooting left or right - he's naturally right-handed - Williams has been forced to go to his off hand a little more since getting his pinky bent backward in a win over UCLA on Jan. 27.
Neither the sore pinky nor a heavy bandage were enough to slow Williams against Southern Cal on Saturday, when he made all six of his shots and scored 20 points in a nine-point home win. Again wearing the tape-and-gauze configuration against Stanford on Thursday, Williams scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a nine-point road win, Arizona's fourth straight.
''I don't know if I have seen a forward be that comfortable being able to go both ways,'' Miller said. ''Usually, you see some of that with like a 6-foot guard, but Derrick is kind of like that. And that is why he is so hard to not foul and why he gets to the line so well.''
The key for the Wildcats now is to not let up.
Last season, Arizona finished the first half of the Pac-10 season at 6-3, had a share of first place and was seemingly a lock for its 26th straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Instead, the Wildcats foundered down the stretch, losing five of their next six games to not only slide out of the NCAA picture, but the NIT as well.
This year's group appears better suited to handle the pressure.
They're deeper, more experienced and versatile, have one of the best players in the country and are fed by a desire to prove last season was an anomaly.
''I don't look at us as, 'Hey, we've done it.' We're far from that,'' Miller said. ''There are so many more important games left on our schedule, but I do think our team, with our daily approach in who we are, we're in a different place than we were last year.''
Now, it's time for them to take the next step.