2003-04 Men's Basketball Outlook
Oct. 21, 2003
The weather patterns surrounding college basketball have changed. The natural ebb-and-flow cycle that began with the gentle breezes of freshman inexperience and ended three or four years later with hurricane-force, senior-laden successes are gone.
For whatever the reason, college basketball's build-and-rebuild timetable has been cut in half. Two-year cycles have become the norm.
'The biggest problem that faces anyone in Division I college basketball today is that you just can't count on having seniors anymore,' says Arizona head coach Lute Olson. 'The days of senior-laden teams are a thing of the past.'
Nowhere has that been more evident than at the University of Arizona. For the third time in the last five seasons, Arizona opens a college basketball season without a senior in its projected eight- to 10-man rotation.
Arizona did lose three key players from its 2002-03 club that won 28 games, captured the Pac-10 title, and held the nation's No. 1 ranking for 13 weeks. It did lose 45.5 percent of the points scored from last season, 42.6 percent of the rebounds, and 47.5 percent of the minutes played.
But the one thing the Wildcats haven't lost is players - really good players. With eight returning letterwinners from a year ago and four solid newcomers, the 100th edition of the Arizona Wildcats will be a highly-athletic bunch with the ability to play multiple positions, depending on the situational match-up, and, hopefully, create problems for the opposition on both ends of the court.
This season, perhaps more than ever, Arizona will be a team not anchored in strict positions like point guard, power forward or center. This team, much like the game itself, will be much more fluid, almost completely interchangeable.
'It's going to be a case of us having to play players, and not this guy's a one, a two, three, four or five,' explains Olson. 'We are really going to be a team without numbers. We have players, and we're going to utilize those players.'
Perhaps no one in the game has been better at adapting to change than Lute Olson. Whatever the circumstances, he continues to be successful. Whether it's the front line-dominant teams that were the hallmarks of his early years or the guard-heavy teams of late that turned Arizona into 'Point Guard U.,' excellence has always been the end result.
Over the past 20 seasons, few programs can match the achievements of Arizona basketball: one national championship, four Final Four appearances, 10 conference championships, the nation's best winning percentage over the past 16 seasons (.809), and 19 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Strong leaders have been the foundation of Arizona's successes. Despite losing three of the program's best to graduation last year, Olson knows that great leadership always seems to answer the call. This season will be no different.
'The leadership part of it will develop as we start to play,' Olson says. 'I would expect the leadership aspect to come from the juniors and sophomores. Across the board, we've seen excellent growth from our returning players. Certainly, we have to see the kids in a practice situation, but I've heard great things about our development in the offseason, especially our maturity.'
One area that does concern him is the front line. Graduation, transfer and the NBA thinned what would have been a strength. It also necessitated UA's fluidity in 2003-04.
'The picture has changed a whole lot with the front line,' says the UA mentor. 'It's put us in a position where everything is thin. That's obviously a major concern, but I like the guys we have.'
Leading Arizona into the 2003-04 campaign is Channing Frye. The 6-foot-11, 248-pound center from Phoenix, Ariz., has developed into one of the finest big men in college basketball. He averaged 12.6 points and a team-leading 8.0 rebounds last year in earning honorable mention all-Pac-10 honors. Frye also ranked second in the conference with a 1.9 blocks-per-game average, while his .569 field goal percentage ranked third.
Frye's steady improvement in his first two seasons is evidenced by the fact that his 15 double-doubles in that span leads all returning Pac-10 players. He's added more than 25 pounds to his nearly seven-foot frame since arriving in Tucson, and now needs to add a touch of consistency to his game as he continues to improve.
'Channing came back around 250 pounds and that should help him this season,' says Olson. 'We need Channing to give us consistent production - both offensively and defensively, especially in challenging shots - on a game-by-game basis. He has made great progress in his two seasons here and he needs to continue that.'
Also holding down the UA front line will be fellow junior Isaiah Fox. The 6-foot-9, 269-pound forward from Santa Monica, Calif., should assume a much greater role in 2004 after spending the better part of his first two seasons as a reserve. Fox made five starts in 31 appearances a year ago and averaged 3.6 points and 3.0 rebounds.
Possessing soft hands and a rebounder's body, Fox ranked second on the club last season with a 54.5 field goal percentage. No one may benefit more from Luke Walton's and Rick Anderson's departure than Fox.
'Isaiah has done a lot of good things for us in the past and we're hoping for great things this season as well, ' says the Hall of Fame head coach. 'He made a big statement about his commitment when he came in this season at last year's playing weight. Isaiah must keep himself in playing condition. He has to take care of his body.'
Over the last decade, Arizona's perimeter has been its strength. This season is no different. Of the eight returnees for 2003-04, six of those players reside on the perimeter.'When you look at our perimeter players, they are really exceptional athletes,' Olson says. 'Actually all of our guys are good athletes, including Channing Frye, who has made outstanding progress over the last two years. Hassan (Adams) and Andre (Iguodala) are great athletes, but I think Chris (Rodgers) and Salim (Stoudamire) are exceptional as well.'With experience and athletic ability in mass quantities, it no secret where the genesis of the Wildcat attack resides.
'A year ago, we couldn't press as much as we wanted to,' says Olson. 'We learned pretty quickly that we had to have either Hassan or Andre on the floor to be as good as we wanted to be. This season, we certainly have the ability to be an outstanding defensive team with our team speed, but we don't have quite the depth that we did last year. But there is no question that our perimeter is our strength.'The pressure Olson speaks of doesn't have to extend 94 feet. Ultimately, the goal of any pressure is to generate offensive opportunities. With the versatility on the Wildcat roster, that pressure could take many different forms.
'It's not a case where pressure necessarily has to be full-court pressure,' explains Olson. 'It could be three-quarter, or it could be half-court pressure. Our defense is going to be very critical for us in terms of creating offensive opportunities. In my opinion, that is going to be one of the biggest keys we'll face. How much of a problem can we create with our defense? That should allow us to get the type of scoring opportunities we're looking for from our defense.'
Junior Salim Stoudamire leads the crew of four experienced players on the UA perimeter. The 6-foot-1, 177-pound guard from Portland, Ore., has quickly established himself as one of the nation's finest outside shooters. In just two seasons, he already ranks 10th on the UA career-three-point field goals list with 144, and his 44.9 career three-point field goal percentage trails only Steve Kerr on the UA list.
The left-hander with a soft touch earned honorable mention all-Pac-10 accolades in 2003 after averaging 13.0 points per game and leading the Wildcats with 71 treys.
'For the last two seasons, he has been voted our best defensive player,' Olson says. 'We need him to shoot the ball at 50 percent, and he's certainly capable of that. Consistency is a key for Salim, and generally, with experience comes consistency.'
Joining Stoudamire on the perimeter is a trio of sophomores, led by Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala. Adams, a 6-foot-4, 201-pound guard from Los Angeles was a Pac-10 all-Freshman pick a year ago after averaging 9.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. The super athlete made an immediate impact. Adams was the first freshman in the 18-year history of the Fiesta Bowl Classic to earn Most Valuable Player honors, while also collecting 13 double-figure scoring games in 2003. He played some of his best ball in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 12.5 points and shooting 76.9 percent from the floor during the West Regional.
'Hassan is a great athlete,' Olson said. 'His offseason instructions were to work on his shooting, especially the midrange jumper, and his ball handling. If those two things improve as they should, there is no telling how good he could be.'
Iguodala, a 6-foot-6, 207-pound forward from Springfield, Ill., could be poised for a breakout season. The Pac-10 all-Freshman pick displayed an all-around game rarely seen on this level. Iguodala averaged 6.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 assists in 32 appearances (four starts) last year.
Somewhat overshadowed by Luke Walton in 2003, Iguodala could fill those shoes with an added touch of athletic ability. Much like Walton, Iguodala often takes more pride in making a great pass. 'He loved playing with Luke because of Luke's passing ability,' says Olson. 'Andre very much wants to be that kind of an all-around player. He just needs to pay attention to his assist:turnover ratio. As with Luke, Andre needs to realize that the best passes are the ones that are completed. They don't have to be flashy, they just have to get the ball to the open man.'
The final returnee to the perimeter is sophomore Chris Rodgers. A 6-foot-4, 200-pound guard from Portland, Ore., Rodgers has the ability to play any of the perimeter positions. He averaged 2.5 points, 0.9 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 28 games last season and benefited from a six-game international tour this summer. It's his versatility that makes him valuable.
'Chris really had a good summer,' explains Olson. 'He worked very hard over the summer and spent quite a bit of time here in Tucson working out. I look at Chris a lot like we used to use Jason Terry.'
The lone seniors on the roster, Jason Ranne and Fil Torres, are not known for their in-game productivity, though each is directly responsible for each Wildcat victory. The duo combined to tally 12 points, three assists and three rebounds in 20 appearances last season, but it's their hard work in practice that makes them an essential piece of the UA puzzle.Ranne, a 6-foot-4, 201-pound guard from Tulsa, Okla., and Torres, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound guard from Lisle, Ill., set the tone in practice and make sure the team is prepared for each opponent. Both walk-ons, Ranne and Torres have been the leaders of Arizona's scout teams for four and three seasons, respectively. It's a job not overlooked by Olson.
'I can't think of two players better suited for their roles than Jason and Fil,' he says. 'Few people realize just how important they are to what we do. It takes an unselfish person to fill that role and we're fortunate to have two good ones.'
Basketball's ebb and flow also seems to affect the newcomers more than anyone. Each of UA's four newcomers will be counted on to fill a key role this season, and none more so than freshman guard Mustafa Shakur. A 6-foot-3, 178-pound native of Wynnewood, Pa., Shakur is the next great Arizona point guard. An excellent ball handler, shooter and passer, Shakur brings a strong work ethic and outstanding leadership skills to the program.
He averaged 26.8 points, 6.8 assists and 4.1 steals per game as a senior at Friends Central High School and was named to the USA Today High School Boys all-USA first team, an EA Sports All-America, an ABCD Camp All-Star and first-team all-state selection. Shakur was also a member of the 2003 USA Basketball Men's Junior National Team, which finished fifth at the World Championships with a 7-1 record.
When asked if there were any doubts about taking the court with a freshman point guard, Olson replied, 'There's always a concern when you start a freshman point guard, but everyone talks about what a great leader Mustafa was in high school. I'm sure that aspect of his game will come as we get into practice and the start of the season. Everyone I spoke with said that Mustafa really plays well, with maturity, and is very team oriented. He has as much potential as any guard we've had come in here.'
Kirk Walters, a 6-foot-10, 212-pound freshman center from Grand Rapids, Mich., will be counted on to provide a bit of depth on the front line. An excellent athlete who runs the floor well and has great hands, Walters posted a strong senior season and seems to improve each time he steps on the floor. He averaged 13.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.2 blocks per game as a senior and led South Christian High School to a 27-0 record and 2003 state championship.
'Kirk needs to add some weight and strength, but he shoots well with both hands, runs the floor well, and is very coachable,' says Olson. 'We feel like he has the potential to be a very good big man.'
Beau Muhlbach, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound guard from Lufkin, Texas, is the first Lone Star State product on the roster since Josh Pastner (1996-2000) and just the fifth in the Lute Olson era. He is an outstanding shooter whose size and versatility will help the club in both practice and game situations.
An outstanding athlete who earned a total of eight letters in four sports, Muhlbach was a first-team all-District 11-5A pick as a junior and senior and averaged 20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game last season.
'We feel like Beau is an outstanding addition to our program,' says Olson. 'He's a hard worker who shoots the ball extremely well and definitely will add to our depth on the perimeter.'
Matt Brase, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound junior forward from Tucson, Ariz., joins the program after two years at Central Arizona College. A newcomer to the Wildcat family in title only, Brase is Lute Olson's grandson.
A team-first player, Brase saw action at both the small and power forward positions at CAC and averaged 14.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game last year as a sophomore to earn honorable mention all-Arizona Community College Athletic Conference and all-region honors.
'Matt will do whatever he can to make us better,' explains Olson. 'He is very much a team player. I'm very biased on the subject, but he is a good guy and a very hard worker.'
The versatility of the 2003-04 Wildcats is something that Olson likes. Despite the chances that continue to swirl about, the formula for success is still as simple as playing to your strengths.
'We feel very comfortable with a lot of different guys on this team who can handle the ball,' he says. 'If you think back to some of our earlier years, we've always had guys like Sean Elliott, Chris Mills, or Jud Buechler, who could handle the ball. We could rub them off screens and get them to the basket area where we could dictate to the team we were playing. This year is going to be a lot like that. We just have to play to our strengths. We've got players, and we're going to play players. It doesn't matter if there are four perimeter guys out there. No matter what the match-ups, the opposition will have to guard us as well.
'I believe that this year's team will have good balance,' continues Olson. 'We have the ability to score inside and out. The one thing that's always been true about this program is that we've always had guys that were more concerned with the final score rather than individual numbers.'
As the Cats head into the centennial season of Arizona basketball, they do so facing another challenging schedule. Neutral-court dates with nationally ranked Florida and Texas highlight a non-conference slate that includes a home game with Marquette and road tilt at Saint Louis. All of this happens before the always-difficult Pac-10 schedule.
'The schedule is going to be very demanding,' says Olson. 'We're traveling all over the place. We will definitely have our hands full, but it's the type of schedule our teams have always enjoyed playing. We want to be challenged in the non-league games. We want to play in some tough environments. This schedule certainly gives us that.'
The Arizona basketball centennial is certainly a time to look back with pride at one of the nation's finest basketball programs. Olson hopes that the 2003-04 season will only add to that honorable tradition.
'I am very fortunate to have been involved with this program and it's rich history for a couple of decades,' concludes Olson. 'We have a great basketball tradition here at the University of Arizona, and hopefully we can add to that this season.'