Five Teams That Are a Year Away

It might turn out that Duke once again steals the preseason thunder of more deserving teams in 2003. But even if that's the case, expect two of the West Region's teams, Arizona vs. Oklahoma, to play for the 2003 national championship April 7th in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. Until then, however, enjoy the ride that Arizona takes you on this time around.

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Some teams, like the 1997 Arizona Wildcats, seem like they are in a hurry to get somewhere. Success comes when most experts projected it to happen down the road. The precocious Wildcats were the last national championship team to win it all without a senior on its roster.

That seems to be the case more and more lately, as underclassmen bolt to the riches and "lifestyle" of the NBA, leaving their teams to pick up the pieces. Once again, it is Arizona that has set the precedent in Quick Recovery 101, aka: "Screw Rebuilding".

No one expected much out of the Wildcats when the season began but after winning 22 games against the nation's toughest schedule that included games against 21 Tournament teams and 19 that were ranked during the year, now these Cats have "expectations".

It's too soon. Pac-10 tournament champions or not, it's too soon. 2003 will be a special year in Tucson, maybe the MOST special year since 1988, but as for picking the Cats to play in the Final Four or win the national championship this year is a little on the wishful thinking side.

Expecting Arizona to get past Gonzaga and Oklahoma in successive wars and then not being rewarded with a Final Four berth might be too much for anyone, much less the young Wildcats. It'll be like struggling to stay afloat in an 8-foot-deep pool and right when you get to the edge you realize you still have the Ocean to cross.

Overwhelming.

My advice to Wildcat fans out there is to simply enjoy the ride while it lasts but not to be too upset if Arizona loses to Gonzaga (it wouldn't be an upset). It is next year when the expectations can start being flung around with the indifference of Liz Taylor's wedding "vows".

Here are five teams people are expecting too much out of in 2002 but will be serious contenders in 2003.

*Arizona-Everyone's back plus two superstar backcourt recruits and possibly a third. Walton and Gardner will be All-Americans and just thinking about how much Channing Frye and Dennis Latimore might improve over the summer is scary.

*Georgia-A number three seed for the Bulldogs is too high even though they played very well in the overrated (this year, not usually) SEC. Jarvis Hayes might be the best player in America as a junior in 2003. If you haven't seen him play yet, find a way.

*UConn-If sophomore sensation Caron Butler sticks around Storrs for one more year, the Huskies are a Final Four favorite on the East Coast. Ben Gordon is a superstar in the making, as is fellow frosh Emeka Okafor. Shooting guard Tony Robertson returns to give more firepower on the perimeter. We all saw how good UConn can be when the Huskies beat Arizona 100-99 in overtime at McKale earlier this season. Arizona played well and still lost.

*Oklahoma-The Sooners could very well be a preseason No. 1 team if they have an impressive showing over the next few weeks. Hollis Price, Ebi Ere, Quannas White and Jabari Brown will all be back. The defensive-minded and rebounding-first Sooners might be a Final Four team this year, but it is likely to resemble 1988 again next year when Oklahoma and Arizona battle for a National Championship in 2003.

*Mississippi State-The alma mater of baseball's greatest hitter, WILL CLARK, got a number three seed this year thanks to winning the SEC tournament but it's next year when the Bulldogs will be a real force. Point guard Derrick Zimmerman (6.2 assists, 2.2 steals) is creative and disruptive at the same time and he knows to get the ball to The Man, power forward Mario Austin (16.2 points, eight boards per game) as much as possible.

Other teams that will be great next year:

Kansas-Only Gooden and Boschee will be gone.
Michigan State-The freshmen become sophs and a top five recruiting class comes in.
Duke-It's Duke.
Florida-Haslem is gone, Nelson might leave, but enough returns along with good recruits to make UF good.
Cal-Amit Tamir, Brian Wethers, Joe Shipp, Shantay Legans, Jamal Sampson and three stud recruits should be enough to finish 2nd behind Arizona in the Pac-10 next year.
Texas-Freshman stud Brad Buckman joins T.J. Ford, Brandon Mouton, James Thomas and Co.
Texas Tech-Kasib Powell (15 points, six rebounds, four assists per game) and Andre Emmett (19.4ppg, .542FG%) will be back to help offset the loss of senior power forward Andy Ellis. Bobby Knight's system will be even more effective after an extra year of implementation.
Oregon-Luke Ridnour is so good that he'll draw Mike Bibby comparisons all year. A great point guard and a very, very good wing like Luke Jackson can make average teams great in a hurry.

Anyway, Arizona's "year" doesn't really start until October 15th. Then the madness will be a six-month long epic that could end with surrealistic elation.

Until then, however, "survive and advance".


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