Heart and Soul: Gardner or Walton?

With all apologies to forward Rick Anderson, Luke Walton and Jason Gardner are the heart and soul of the Arizona basketball program. The leadership, scoring and playmaking abilities that both Walton and Gardner possess have ensured that this Wildcat team will be just like those before it: in contention. However, which of the two juniors is most valuable to Arizona's success?

After watching the Arizona offense sputter through a four-point victory over Valparaiso on Sunday, a thought occured to me. Whom would Arizona miss more if either Jason Gardner or Luke Walton couldn't play in a particular game?

What was evident in the Valpo game was that Arizona does not run at optimum levels when Walton isn't on the court.

With Luke on the sideline nursing a strained right Achilles tendon, the Wildcats committed 12 first half turnovers and finished with a less-than-efficient 18 for the game against the Crusaders' 1-2-2 zone defense.

This just in: zones are not supposed to cause turnovers. What happened was something that tennis fans are well aware of. Unforced errors.

Would that have been the case with Luke Walton on the floor? Doubtful. Thankfully, Gardner engineered the comeback and sealed the win with clutch shooting down the stretch.

Jason Gardner is the heart of Arizona, that much is clear, and he has proven that fact for over two years now. From the first game he played, Gardner showed that he is as courageous and tough-minded as any college player.

Like Miles Simon and Sean Elliott before him, Gardner has shown time and again that he is money in the clutch for the Wildcats. He even helped lead last year's team to the national championship game on the strength of some of his big shots and key plays.

If Gardner is the heart of Arizona then Luke Walton is the soul of the team. Walton is a 6-8 forward who plays like a point guard and a power forward at the same time. Excluding three-point shooting, Walton is probably the best of all the Wildcats in almost every area.

If Arizona is looking to make a play it usually goes through Walton to get the end result it's trying for. Walton is the best passer on the team and might be the best passer in America for a guy his size. He can also rebound very well even without the athleticism of some of his opponents. Luke uses his basketball intelligence and strong fundamentals to get into position for his boards. Essentially, Luke Walton is a triple-double waiting to happen. And make no mistake, he will get his triple-double before the year is out.

What I want to compare here is just how vital each of the two juniors are to Arizona's success. First, take a look at the performances of the two players in the Wildcats' five games that were decided by less than five points and remember that Walton did not play in the Valpo game(Arizona is 5-0 in those games, by the way).

Gardner: 20.6ppg, 4.0rpg, 4.6apg, .413FG%, .409 3pt%, .786FT%.
Walton: 11.5ppg, 6.8rpg, 5.3apg, .432FG%, .111 3pt%, .529FT%.

Gardner seems to be the catalyst in Arizona's wins by looking at those numbers. However, take into consideration the performances from these two veterans in the Wildcats' three losses.

Gardner: 23.3ppg, 3.7rpg, 3.0apg, .408FG%, .375 3pt%, .667FT%.
Walton: 13.7ppg, 6.7rpg, 6.0apg, .342FG%, .167 3pt%, .923FT%.

Gardner actually scores more points in losses than he does in wins while Walton's shooting percentage is nearly ten per cent worse when Arizona loses. Translation: teams will concede Gardner his 20 points if it means shutting down Luke Walton offensively. That may sound ridiculous to some but the statistics show that if Luke Walton is "off", Arizona is in trouble.

The biggest difference comes in how the team is run when either is out of the ballgame. Gardner is rarely on the bench, period, but when he is things don't seem to go as haywire as when Walton isn't on the floor.

Walton is the steadying hand for the Wildcats and the offense primarily flows through him. He finds cutters, feeds the post and looks for open men on the perimeter. When he turns the ball over it's usually on plays that are almost impossible to make but he has made in the past so he tries them again.

The stagnant half-court offense against Valparaiso proved just how valuable Luke Walton is to Arizona's success.

Don't get me wrong, Jason Gardner is the better player and he will get the All-American recognition and maybe even win the Pac-10 Player of the Year award. But if he were to miss an entire game against any team, I don't think it would be as bad from a gameflow perspective as it would be without Walton.

The all-around game and versatility that Luke Walton plays with are the most valuable of all commodities in today's college basketball world.

So, Gardner is the heart of the team, but Luke Walton is its soul.

All things considered, having both players fully healthy is much more conducive to winning than actually seeing for ourselves who Arizona would miss more if either went down.

Talk about this story on the basketball message board: MESSAGE BOARD

Or you can join die hard Wildcat fans on the Premium Message Board: PREMIUM MESSAGE BOARD

Wildcat Authority Top Stories