Schu Strings: Next year could be special

Given the expectations that come with one of the nation's top basketball programs, I found the attitude of Arizona's fans very positive following the UA's 21-point loss to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16

Sweet 16's generally aren't a benchmark for programs of Arizona's caliber, and as a result, bowing out at that stage usually meets with a fair amount of frustration. But the overwhelming majority of Wildcat fans I encountered with extremely understanding of the UA's unique circumstances this season, and in the end applauded the many accomplishments this youthful unit achieved.

I believe there's also a realization that Arizona has the opportunity to be very much in the mix in 2003, and the general mood seems to be one of significant anticipation. The long summer can't conclude soon enough. There's every reason to believe the UA be in the mix, given the rate of excellence often achieved by this year's team, and the knowledge of another season of experience and program understanding.
After all, there's a good possibility (depending upon Jason Gardner's decision) that Arizona will return everybody from this year's team. Additionally, it adds at least two quality players in positions of need, 6-4 defensive specialist Chris Rodgers and 6-4 McDonald's All-American Hassan Adams. So without being trite, the future certainly looks bright for Arizona basketball. And Wildcat fans know it.

Arizona has a chance to be very strong in a number of areas, but also must prepare for issues not experienced this year. What follows is a sort of off-the-cuff breakdown of strengths and issues of concern heading into next season.

Tempo: To me, the amazing thing about this year's team is that it rarely won a game by dictating tempo. When last year's Arizona team hit its stride en route to the national title run, the defense was so daunting that it imposed its will upon nearly every opponent. With Gilbert Arenas and Richard Jefferson occupying space, Arizona caused havoc regularly on the perimeter, and as a result procured numerous easy buckets.

This year's edition of the Wildcats had to rely on strong play offensively in the halfcourt. Its backcourt didn't have the height or range to cause problems, and it lacked athleticism on the wing to consistently disrupt the passing lanes. Additionally, the inside presence was marginal. The result: other teams played at their pace, which makes Arizona's accomplishments all the more amazing.

But next year, with the addition of lanky perimeter players in Adams and Rodgers, there's every reason to believe Arizona can be a force defensively again, which will put less pressure on a halfcourt offense that, as the season wore on, consistently excelled in 2002.

Inside presence: Freshmen Channing Frye, Isaiah Fox and Dennis Latimore must be more effective to give Arizona the kind of inside-outside balance it desires to succeed. Frye surpassed expectations for most of the season, and appears to have the tools necessary to make those "best center in the history of program" prophecies ultimately come true. But Fox and Latimore might be the key. Arizona managed to compensate for a number of last year's early-eligibility defections, but it never did find an enforcer, a Michael Wright or Gene Edgerson type who willed a rebound in his hands. Fox and Latimore both have the potential to fill that role, perhaps Latimore more so, but they must make major strides in the off-season to make the UA an imposing force on the interior.

Expectations: This year's Arizona team benefited from a free lunch ticket. With the addition of five freshmen who logged significant minutes and another starter who redshirted the previous year, nobody was certain what to expect. And when the UA started to win, that was a pleasant surprise. The aforementioned fans were understanding.

In 2003, it's going to be different. Arizona must perform well, plain and simple. Expectations have plagued Wildcat teams in the past. The UA had a strong regular season in 1989, but dropped a Sweet 16 game to UNLV. In 1995, Arizona was misdiagnosed as a preseason favorite, but crumbled in the first round to Miami of Ohio. In 1998, the loaded UA team got smoked by Utah in the Elite Eight. This group of Wildcats will play in a different environment next season, and how they handle it will go a long way toward the ultimate success.

Which leads us to…

Chemistry: The 2002 Arizona team had it in droves. This unit appeared to genuinely like one another. With next year's potential depth, not to mention the pressure the two or three seniors will endure given that this is their last ride, the coaching staff and team leaders might have some personality issues not experienced this season. The UA must learn to handle that potential pressure cooker environment.

Schedule: Arizona benefited from a loaded schedule this year, but next season's non-conference encounters are not as daunting. A matchup at Kansas and home game with Oklahoma are among the high points.
Additionally, I'm not certain the Pac-10 will be as tough to navigate as it was this season. The loss of Frederick Jones will hurt Oregon, although it looks as though UO will still have plenty of talent to remain competitive. Cal should improve, regardless of the Jamal Sampson decision. Stanford figures to be a bit better as well, but if Casey Jacobsen bolts, that will be a huge void to fill. Washington could be a darkhorse. ASU is an uncertainty.

But UCLA needs a lot of young players to really step up in order to be a factor, USC takes a big hit, and Oregon State and Washington State don't looked poise to play a competent role at all.

One can argue that Duke this year was hurt by its lack of stiff competition. Its non-conference schedule was not particularly daunting, and the usually solid ACC wasn't as deep as usual.

In the end, Arizona has every opportunity to make next year extraordinary, but anyone who believes it will come easy is living in a fantasyland.


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