Talented and deep, Arizona stands tall

Ranked No. 1, Wildcats have look of a champion, but Walton's ankle is issue

National notebook

February 28, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

That wasn't a misprint in the box score from No. 1 Arizona's 92-72 victory at Arizona State on Saturday. That was the handwriting on the NCAA tournament wall.

The Wildcats were scary enough a month ago, when they wiped out a 20-point deficit to win by 17 at Kansas, and they now seem to be separating themselves from the small pack of legitimate contenders for this season's championship.

Each of Arizona's frontcourt starters had a double double against the more-than-respectable Sun Devils. Luke Walton, Channing Frye and Rick Anderson combined for 65 points and 32 rebounds.

Point guard Jason Gardner barely missed a double double for points and assists.

`This team is just now starting to find themselves, knowing their roles on the floor," Arizona coach Lute Olson said.

Here's another frightening thought, too - for the Wildcats.

Is everything coming together a little too soon, with another week to go in the Pac-10 season and three weeks left before Arizona likely will be the No. 1 seed in the West Regional?

Arizona might be the resounding favorite when the tournament starts, but the Wildcats know how fast their status can change if Walton's much-scrutinized right ankle is injured again.

It happened three years ago to Cincinnati, when Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament. As important as Martin was to the Bearcats, who lost early in the NCAA tournament, Walton is to the Wildcats.

"With Luke, we're a great basketball team," said sophomore guard Salim Stoudamire. "Without him, we're mediocre."

Even before his 23-point, 10-rebound, four-assist game against Arizona State, Walton was considered the one indispensable player on the country's deepest and most talented team.

That Arizona won at Oregon in January a few days after Walton sprained his ankle for the fourth time this season might have given the Wildcats reason to think they could win big games without him, but they won't do it March.

"Without Luke in there, it's a whole different ballgame," said Arizona State coach Rob Evans, who tried a couple of different players against Walton. "He is a tough person to match up."

Said Arizona associate head coach Jim Rosborough: "Luke makes everyone a better player. He's the smartest kid I've ever coached. He's a brilliant player. If we can get him back to 90 percent or so, we should be all right."

While Arizona isn't as deep as it appeared earlier in the season - reserve guard Will Bynum left the team in January and backup forward Dennis Latimore quit this week - Olson's eight-man rotation is nearly without any discernible weakness.

Walton, Anderson and Gardner played on the team that lost to Duke in the 2001 NCAA tournament final. Frye, Stoudamire and sophomore center Isaiah Fox have all improved from last season - Frye in particular.

Despite a recent slump, freshman guard Hassan Adams could be the next big star in Tucson, and freshman forward Andre Iguodala, who has become more of a factor as the season goes on, isn't too far behind.

Olson, not the easiest coach to please, seems satisfied with the progress his team has made.

"I think we did play to other teams' level, but the biggest thing is that we are," said Olson, whose team improved to 22-2 with an 88-75 win over No. 23 California last night. "I don't think you could ask for more than that. We're No. 1 in the country and in the Pac-10. I feel the team is doing a great job and winning the big ballgames."

Dulling the home edge

Those lower-tier schools hoping to play close to home in the NCAA tournament's first round might have to make other arrangements. So might some of the higher seeds.

According to Jim Livengood, the chairman of this year's selection committee, the pod system put in place last season is being reworked so that teams might not get a close-to-home-court advantage.

It happened last year when Pittsburgh got to play within the city limits for the first two rounds and 11th-seeded Southern Illinois used some strong support at the United Center in Chicago to upset sixth-seeded Texas Tech.

"The teams that earn the high seeds should have some advantage as to where they go," Livengood said. "It's not a perfect system, but it's workable."

That might cost Oklahoma a chance to play in Oklahoma City and Holy Cross, should it win the Patriot League, the opportunity to play close to home in Boston.

The Arizona Republic and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Planting seeds

The Sun's projected top four seeds in each of the four regionals of the NCAA tournament. The predictions are based on teams' records through Wednesday and their Rating Percentage Index, or RPI, the power rating given Division I teams each week:

East....South

1. Kentucky...1. Florida

2. Wake Forest...2. Oklahoma

3. Kansas...3. Duke

4. Syracuse...4. Stanford

Midwest....West

1. Texas...1. Arizona

2. Louisville...2. Marquette

3. Notre Dame...3. Okla. State

4. Xavier...4. Utah

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