Curse of the bigs

Arizona has gotten good play from their big men of late, but there is probably no one who is entirely comfortable with the position. Kirk Walters and Ivan Radenovic have played very well of late, but the post has been a spot on the roster that almost seems cursed.

Arizona has not been a hotbed for big men since Lute Olson scrapped the "Tucson Skyline" for the backcourt dynamics of Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves. Since then Arizona has been ‘Point Guard U'. Several talented big men have come through the program, but most have either been transfers (Loren Woods, Ben Davis) or projects (A.J. Bramlett, Channing Frye).

Recently the inside has seen its share of strange happenings. Injuries, transfers and lackluster play have plagued the Wildcat big men.

It all starts with the class of 2001. Arizona signed three players in that class and that led to all the problems they have had the past few seasons. Arizona got an early commitment from Frye, an unheralded player at the time. They followed that up with big verbal commitments from Dennis Latimore and Rick Rickert. Both were top-30 type players and the cornerstone of what was to be a great recruiting class.

The only problem was the Rickert got intense pressure from his family and eventually decommited and wound up at Minnesota where he made an instant impact but jumped a year too early to the pros and has never made an impact on the NBA.

Arizona recovered from the loss and wound up getting Isaiah Fox, which would actually set into motion a number of problems down the road.

Arizona entered the 2001-02 season with four freshmen big men. Fox, Latimore and Frye were joined by redshirt freshman Andrew Zahn. Because of a glut of young post players the Cats did not actively recruit a 2003 big man and let the likes of Matt Haryasz get out of the state.

Fox and Frye were early impact players, in fact many forget that Fox more than held his own with more experienced big men like Lonnie Baxter and Udonis Haslem in his first two collegiate outings.

With it evident that Zahn was not long for the program, the Cats did add Chris Dunn, a 6-7 combo-forward to the program. That was another ill-fated addition that would prove to be costly on several fronts.

The Cats went after bigs in the 2003 class, but the glut of post players seemed to have an impact. Arizona brought in Ndudi Ebi, Brian Butch and David Padgett for visits in the spring, but landed only one those players. Ebi committed to the Cats and later in the process they added Walters, a relative unknown in the class.

Ebi never arrived on campus, he declared for the NBA Draft and was a late first round selection of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ironically enough, Rickert was a second round selection of the club. Ebi never had an impact on the team and is now in the NBDL trying to get a second chance.

Dunn played well in practice situations, so well that he was one of the reasons that Latimore transferred to Notre Dame before the 2003 NCAA Tournament. However, Dunn would fail to meet his academic requirements and by the fall of 2004 he was no longer enrolled at Arizona.

That off-season the Cats made a run at Lawrence Roberts, but the big man from Baylor decided to transfer to Mississippi State and not Arizona in part because the Wildcats "wanted" him, but the Bulldogs "needed" him.

The 2003-04 season opened with the Wildcats thin at the post. Ebi, Dunn and Latimore were gone and Walters was destined to redshirt. Although shorthanded, the Cats seemed intent going to battle with Frye, Fox and an undersized Hassan Adams occupying the two post positions. In the season's second game Fox blew out his knee, forcing Walters into action and the Cats scrambling to see if there were any available big men on the market.

The Cats looked overseas and found Ivan Radenovic. The Serbian big man was more of a traditional European outside/inside big man, but was an effective player early on. However, by March he was coming off the bench to spell Adams and Walters was basically a spot substitution player.

The recruiting front did not go that well either. The Cats were in on Marvin Williams but the big man made his official visit to Tucson while Lute Olson was out of the country and settled on North Carolina. They did receive an early commitment from Mohamed Tangara and it seemed as if big man Davis Nwankwo wanted to commit. Much like the Rickert situation, Nwankwo's parents did not want him to go to Arizona and eventually he settled on Vanderbilt long after the Wildcats backed off.

Things continued to be dicey on campus. Walters was again set to redshirt, but that would only last a semester. Isaiah Fox was suspended for the opening games of the exhibition season, while Tangara struggled with a back injury. Eventually the Walters would come out of the redshirt, Tangara would be lost to injury and Fox would be relegated to the end of the bench. How bad were things? Walk-on Bret Brielmaier may have been the team's third best inside player.

The Cats added combo forward Fendi Onobun and tried to bring in African big man Chuck Okwandu, but missed out on players like Jon Brockman, Julian Wright and Tyler Hansbrough. Okwandu could never clear hurdles from the NCAA, the state department and the Nigerian government and never stepped foot on campus.

Frye did finish his career as one of the best centers in the Olson era, but his departure to the NBA left a void in the middle. Walters was the heir apparent, but he never got the redshirt year he needed. Radenovic was still figuring out how to be a post presence. Fox never seemed to fully recover from his knee injury and Tangara is still trying to get up to speed.

This year the Cats have tried a number of different combinations and schemes, including Marcus Williams at the four and bringing Onobun out of a redshirt. It wasn't until the past few weeks that the inside game has shown any semblance of stepping up. Walters was finally given and extended audition by Olson and the junior has responded. Although he should be a sophomore, things are starting to click.

Walters improved play, plus better shot selection, have made Radenovic more effective. Radenovic seems to finally have embraced being an inside presence and has been a threat to get a double-double of late.

The Wildcat bigs are far from a finished product. There is no guarantee that Walters and Radenovic will continue to play well. The Cats are still trying dig themselves out of a hole from a talent standpoint and will lose a year of Walters' service because of it. The future is intriguing with the likes of Jordan Hill and Alex Jacobson committed for the next two classes, but they may have to overcome the curse to make an impact.

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