Latimore Capable of Making Arizona Clear Cut No. 1

Arizona is likely to be ranked No. 1 when the first polls are released in six weeks or so. This is not a shock to anyone, at least not since Jason Gardner and Luke Walton decided to return to campus for their senior years anyway. However, this season and its impending degree of success might hinge on the muscular shoulders of another player and it's not anyone the national "experts" have proclaimed a future All-American.

Whether or not Dennis Latimore, Arizona's 6-foot-8, 240-pound sophomore who puts the "power" in power forward, elevates his game to the level of his exceptional potential is not the point. The Wildcats are a Final Four-caliber team regardless. What IS the point is that Latimore has a chance to transform Arizona from a championship contender to a team capable of running away and hiding from the likes of Kansas, Oklahoma and Xavier come March and April.

Take a look at what some of the college basketball preseason forecasters are saying about this Arizona team: "Great team experience and coaching…Gardner and Walton return…outstanding recruiting class…frontline might be suspect."

Depending on Latimore, some of those prognosticators who think that the Wildcats' frontcourt depth consists of Walton, Rick Anderson and Channing Frye might look pretty foolish six months from now.

Latimore struggled as a freshman, mostly with the speed of the game and the competition level. The glimpses of the talent that earned him a top 25 standing in the recruiting class of 2001 were few and far between. In fact, of Arizona's heralded five-man class, Latimore might have been the least effective.

He thought too much instead of playing. He relied on his considerable intelligence instead of his considerable talent. Nothing seemed to flow for the freshman from Halstead High in Kansas. Over-thinking and over-analyzing can separate the body from the mind at times.

So this offseason he "just played". He worked to shed weight while adding muscle and now looks like a chiseled Greek statue at 240-pounds with three- percent body fat.

The athleticism and speed that he seemed to lack at times as a freshman have returned and so has a newfound aggressiveness that shows how much reaction is a part of his game now instead of hesitation. Whereas last year he'd take a pass, dribble and think about what to do before making his move (which inevitably led to a turnover or bad decision), he now catches, turns, jumps, dunks and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Dennis Latimore has a chance to be the number one difference maker on what could be a very special team. Look at the rosters of the other nine Pac-10 teams in the conference and try to find a big man as gifted and as potentially explosive coming off the bench. There is no comparison. Latimore sticks out more so than anyone when it comes to the "if-he-comes-in-and-plays-well-we're-in-trouble" category. He's a 6-8, 240 rebounding machine who hasn't even come close to scratching the surface of his potential.

Which non-starter in the league can match-up with a talent like Latimore? Certainly no one from ASU, USC, UCLA, Oregon or Stanford. Cal is too thin on the frontline, Oregon State's strength is in its starting five and Washington is turning into a wing factory.

Latimore isn't going to turn into a 15-point, eight-rebound player over the summer. He probably won't even average eight points and eight rebounds for the year because of Arizona's depth. But considering the fact that he averaged 9.2 rebounds per 40 minutes as a freshman it's obvious that he can be a force with extended playing time, especially with his improved offensive game.

This is Eugene Edgerson with three inches and a clue with the ball in his hands.

With most players making the most marked improvement between their freshman and sophomore seasons, it's not hard to predict Dennis Latimore earning the team's Most Improved Player in 2003. After all, he was the freshman with the biggest upside and most physical talent a year ago. His room for improvement is massive and the better he gets and the better he plays, the better Arizona will be because of it. The correlation is striking in terms of what Arizona is and what Arizona has a chance to become if Latimore has a breakout season.

Of course Latimore will still struggle at times as a sophomore. He needs time to develop a better game around the basket and to learn not to put the ball on the floor near the hoop. His outside shot could be a big time weapon if the coaching staff allows him to utilize it from time to time.

If Latimore is the most improved player on Arizona's roster this year, the Wildcats go from a team worthy of National Title talk to one that could go down as the best in school history and one that will be favored to win each game they take part in.

Yes, that is how much of an impact Dennis Latimore can have on this team.

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