Wildcats ahead of schedule heading into Pac-10

Seven games into the season, the senior-less Arizona basketball team has gone from an unranked afterthought to a serious contender on the national level. A nightmare pre-conference schedule has toughened up the freshman-laden Wildcats and brought out the best in juniors Jason Gardner and Luke Walton. Oh, and that guy with silver hair on the sidelines has shown that he can coach a little, too.

A friend of mine from Maui sent me an e-mail prior to the season in regard to Arizona's non-conference schedule. While I don't remember the exact words he used, I'm pretty sure it went something like this:

"Arizona's gonna start 0-9 against all those top ten teams! Jason Gardner can't shoot and neither can Luke Walton!...Go Iowa!"

So I looked at the Cats' schedule for the 300th time of the summer and all I saw were "L's". I mean, come on! Maryland? Florida (IF Arizona could pull off the upset against the Terps first, of course)? Texas in Austin? Kansas? Illinois? At Michigan State? No way. Too tough. Lute Olson went too far trying to toughen his team up for March with this schedule. What, weren't the Lakers available for a home-and-home?

The pollsters took notice of the Wildcats' losses in personnel from last year's National runner-up and didn't include the Cats in either of the preseason polls. This was going to be the inevitable "down year" most elite programs experience and the most die hard Arizona fans could say about what to expect from their team was, "well, they should be fun to watch!" Which, when translated from euphemism to English, roughly means, "brace yourself".

But something funny happened on the way to the 0-9 start my Hawaiian buddy predicted.

Arizona came out of the gates like...well, like Arizona. Junior point guard Jason Gardner took responsibility in running the show on the court and engineered two straight "upsets" over No. 2 Maryland and No. 5 Florida on consecutive nights in New York, to claim the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament.

Those two wins against teams picked by many to play in this year's Final Four gave the young Wildcats and their five true freshmen confidence and the knowledge that they can play with--and beat--the best the country has to offer.

After hammering Texas on the road, Arizona rose to No. 3 in the polls before coming back down to earth in a loss to an outstanding Kansas team. Shortly after the KU game had gone final, I received another e-mail from my pal in Lahaina.

"This loss is going to crush all the freshmen's confidence," it read. "Maryland and Florida are overrated, now we see how good Arizona really is against a legit Final Four contender like Kansas. The Cats will lose their next three games...Luke Recker is God!"

Although losses to Kansas and now Saturday at Michigan State have slowed Arizona's progress, they should prove to be nothing more than learning experiences when looking back on them come March.

Gardner, Luke Walton and Rick Anderson have all proven to be big game players and each has come through with key baskets, rebounds or defensive stops to win close ballgames against tough competition. The team's lack of a standout freshman thus far has been balanced by the fact that, as a group, these kids are as talented and tough-minded as any class in the nation.

Now the Cats are heading into what Olson calls the real important phase of the season: the conference schedule. This week Arizona travels to Oregon to face the Ducks and the Beavers with six games against ranked teams under its belt.

One would think that playing Oregon in "The Pit" this Thursday night won't be quite as intimidating after experiencing Michigan State's Breslin Center Saturday afternoon.

Going into the start of conference play, Arizona has benefited from the murderous schedule, coming out of it relatively unscathed with a very impressive 5-2 record. Even some of the Cats' critics are realizing that their fast start isn't a fluke.

"Arizona's better than I thought," my friend in Maui said in his most recent letter--Saturday night after losing to Michigan State. "Olson just seems to always have them ready for anyone...Oh my god Missouri sucks! Go Hawks!"

So much for 0-9.

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