'We've Learned To Deal With It'
March 18, 2001
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The last thing a coach wants his team believing inis a guardian angel. Even if the angel guarding the team once belonged to him.
Arizona coach Lute Olson moved one step closer to a second national titleSunday when his Wildcats put together a fierce defensive effort in the secondhalf to put away Butler 73-52. It marked the fourth time in the last six yearsArizona has reached the Sweet 16. The flip side is that six other times since1990, the Wildcats have gone into the NCAA tournament a top three-seed and gonehome after the opening weekend.
'This one means a lot to us,' Arizona's Luke Walton said. 'It's been atough year for us and for coach.'
To know how tough, you have to turn back the clock to last Dec. 30. That'swhen Olson, sobbing uncontrollably, stood in front of his team and told hisplayers he was taking a leave of absence to look after a dying wife. By NewYear's Day, after battling ovarian cancer for 2 1/2 years, Bobbi Olson succumbedto the disease.
They had been married 47 years. Two weeks later, craving routine and pushedby his own children to go back to work and fill the void in his life, Olsonreturned to coaching. He's had to yell and scream from that first practice backto the most recent one, suspend one kid and threaten several others, butArizona has lost only twice in 17 games since.
'We know how important she was to him, but he never mentions it around usanymore,' Walton said. 'To bring it up would just bring back the sadness. Weknow there's still work to be done, but as far as basketball, we've learned todeal with it.'
Arizona began this season at or near the top of everybody's poll. The teamlooked golden. All five returning starters are almost certain NBA draft picks.Olson, 66, already had one national title under his belt, a full head of whitehair and a demeanor that prompted a rival to call him 'Cary Grant.'
It looked like the only thing the Wildcats were going to have to do wasrehearse their acceptance speeches for the season's final weekend inMinneapolis. But fate had other plans.
Loren Woods, the star center was suspended for the first six games forreceiving gifts from a family friend. Richard Jefferson was suspended foranother for a similar offense. A talented team was taking too much for granted,splintering over the smallest problems. Then came Bobbi Olson's death.
Assistant Jim Rosborough, who took over the team during Olson's absence,recalled the night Olson told his players he was leaving.
'Nobody had ever seen Lute this way,' he said. 'He's been a model ofstrength, a rock. The players were shocked.'
Three minutes into his first practice back, Olson tore into Jason Gardnerfor sloppy play. A moment after that, he crumpled up his practice plan andthrew it to the floor. Nobody doubted his intensity was back. In the secondgame after Olson's return, Arizona took his lessons about hard work to heart,played great defense, outscored UCLA by 33 points in second half and neverlooked back.
Sunday was more of the same. The Wildcats led 30-26, held Butler scorelessfor nearly seven minutes while piling up 15 points of their own and effectivelyput the game away.
'There's no doubt,' Olson said, 'that the game was won on the defensiveside of the court.'
He was yelling all the way to the end, if only because 28 years of habitsare hard to break. But the truth is, so attuned have his players succumb toOlson's desires, that he could whisper and still get results. When they jumpout on the perimeter to challenge a jump shooter, or fly to the corners todouble-team a ballhandler, or crash the boards as though their futures dependon it, that's because they've learned the lesson Olson learned this past NewYear's Day.
Nothing is guaranteed.
'It's funny,' Greg Olson, the second of Lute and Bobbi's five grownchildren, said Sunday, sitting just behind the Arizona bench. 'The basketballis the easy part of his life now. It's the rest of the time that's hard.'
On the other side of the arena, Butler coach Thad Matta recalled playingArizona back in December. Then, his team was within four points with 90 secondsleft before the Wildcats scored the last 10 to make a close game look easy.
'They're a different team than we played in December,' Matta said. 'Iheard Coach Olson talking about focus and now this team is extremely focused onwhat they want to do.'
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Writer