Arizona unable to shake its regular inconsistency

Youthful Wildcats falter vs. lesser opponents, but pull off big comebacks

Notebook

January 25, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. - Arizona coach Lute Olson knew this was going to be one of the most challenging seasons of his career. He also knew that his Wildcats would be talented, yet inconsistent, considering the overhaul to the team's lineup since losing to Duke in last year's NCAA championship game.

What Olson didn't expect was how challenging a job he would have and how inconsistent a team Arizona would be.

Has there ever been a No. 10-ranked team more perplexing than the 13-5 Wildcats, a team capable of coming back from deficits of 20 points or more twice in a span of 13 days, and then losing here to unranked state rival Arizona State by 16 points Wednesday night?

It might say something about the state of college basketball, given that Arizona lost four starters, including would-be junior Richard Jefferson and would-be senior Michael Wright. The most recent defeat might support those who believe the Pacific-10 is the deepest league in the country.

It also might suggest that the Wildcats had better get their act together in the next month or else expect a short run come March.

With a team that includes two freshmen in the starting lineup and five among the top eight players, Olson figured that it would take awhile for things to jell. But starting the season with victories over highly ranked Maryland and Florida in the preseason NIT gave the Wildcats a false sense of bravado.

"They've been told since their first day on campus that they would get everybody's best shot," Olson said after Wednesday's game, his first loss to the Sun Devils in the past six years. "I guess I'm less concerned about the freshmen as I am about the inconsistency of our junior class."

That inconsistency has caused Arizona to rise and fall wildly in terms of rankings and results. The Wildcats went from being unranked in the preseason all the way to No. 4 after two weeks, then fell as far as 20th. They lost a close game at home to then-No. 8 Kansas, but were blown out at Oregon by 30.

Then came the two big comebacks, beating Oregon State after falling behind by 21 in the second half, and then turning a 20-point deficit at home to UCLA a week ago into a resounding 10-point win. That was followed by the loss to Arizona State, when the Wildcats fell behind early and never caught up.

"I think we got to the point where we expected miracles all the time," freshman forward Channing Frye said.

Said Olson: "You can't play with fire. I'm disappointed they said that."

The 88-72 loss here to the Sun Devils underscored Arizona's biggest problems - a lack of defense and depth. As hard-working a player as junior forward Luke Walton is, he still doesn't have the quickness to stop more athletic opponents. Jason Gardner's lack of size gives opposing guards an easy target to shoot over or drive around.

And then there are the freshmen. Salim Stoudamire, who has been an explosive scorer at times, tends to disappear on defense. Frye had 19 points and eight rebounds against the Bruins, but got bounced around inside by the Sun Devils. Will Bynum, Isaiah Fox and Dennis Latimore are probably a year away.

The Wildcats played Arizona State as if the Sun Devils were some mediocre nonconference opponent rather than an experienced, if not overly talented, in-state rival hungry for a victory over a ranked team, particularly one that their fans hate the most. Arizona played as if it could just show up and win.

"We're 18 games into the season so you've got to be a slow learner if you think that," Olson said.

Like his famous father, Walton was equally succinct.

"If we play like this in the tournament, we're going to get our butts beat very early," he said.

Cowboy tribute

Exactly one year to the day that 10 members of Oklahoma State's basketball program were killed in a private plane crash returning from a game at Colorado, there will be a ceremony honoring them today at halftime of a home game between the Cowboys and Buffaloes.

"I think it's very good that we're doing this," OSU coach Eddie Sutton said at a news conference earlier this week. "Everybody needs to understand that these guys will never be forgotten. They were a special group of people."

Among those killed were players Nate Fleming and Daniel Lawson.

"It's been a tough year for all of us," said senior forward Fredrik Jonzen, who was Fleming's roommate. "It's been a different year. You have to deal with a lot of things. It's tough, especially playing Colorado. It will be an emotional game."

The others killed were members of the team's traveling party, including team manager Jared Weiberg, the nephew of Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg, a former associate athletic director at Maryland.

"Those were 10 quality human beings," Sutton said. "All of them were great people. They certainly all touched my life in some way. There's not a day goes by where something doesn't remind me of one of them."

Planting seeds

From now until the NCAA tournament, The Sun will run its weekly seedings for the top four teams from each regional. The seedings will be made before Thursday night's games.

East

1. Duke

2. Kentucky

3. Alabama

4. Arizona

South

1. Cincinnati

2. Florida

3. Okla. St.

4. UCLA

West

1. Maryland

2. Oklahoma

3. Ohio State

4. Oregon

Midwest

1. Kansas

2. Illinois

3. Virginia

4. Georgia

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