COLLEGE PREVIEW: Arizona Wildcats eye second straight NCAA title
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ The Arizona Wildcats had no sooner snipped the net off their basket and messed up coach Lute Olson’s perfectly coifed ice-white hair last March 31 than they began mapping out another trip to the title game.
The championship was no fluke, the Wildcats bragged, and watch out next season.
Well, 1997-98 has arrived and Arizona is already off to a great start. With a confident swagger and a No. 1 ranking in the preseason poll, the Wildcats return their entire team to try to win another crown.
None of the players ever doubted that a group that was 19-9 in the regular season and finished fifth in the Pac-10 could win it all in Indianapolis, and they have even less doubt about repeating.
``We have a great chance at doing it,″ said Miles Simon, the Final Four MVP. ``The continuity will help us, big time.″
They’ll have their work cut out for them.
Only six teams have won consecutive NCAA crowns since Oklahoma State got its second in 1946. Duke was the last in 1991 and 1992. Arkansas and Kentucky both had chances to repeat since then but lost in the title game.
Kentucky returns a talent-laden squad that will be looking to avenge its overtime loss to Arizona in the championship game last season, although it will be without coach Rick Pitino, who left to take over the Boston Celtics. Kentucky and Arizona will almost certainly play each other in the semifinal of the Maui Invitational on Nov. 25.
Another team looking to even the score is Kansas, the No. 1 ranked team when it was upset by Arizona in the NCAA tournament round of 16. They meet Dec. 2 in the Great Eight in Chicago.
But the Wildcats, worry? Nah.
``Maybe we were underdogs to a lot of people (last season), but we never thought that about ourselves,″ center A.J. Bramlett said. ``People are going to be shooting for us again at a higher scale, but we’re working hard, getting ready for that. Playing teams that are playing their best brings out the best in us.″
Sophomore guard Mike Bibby said: ``I started to get ready like right after the (title) game. I took about a week off or even less, and then I went to work. I worked the hardest I ever have over the summer.″
Bibby lifted weights, played pickup games and only broke the routine during the team’s 23-day, nine-game tour of Australia.
Bramlett and Jason Terry, a shooting guard bumped from the starting lineup when Simon returned from an 11-game academic suspension last season, spent the summer in Illinois: Terry to work in Michael Jordan’s camp, and Bramlett to visit his father in DeKalb and play summer-league basketball in Chicago four days a week.
Between trips to the big city, Bramlett relaxed by playing at a high school gym near his father’s house.
The team’s work ethic infected Quynn Tebbs and Justin Wessel, who sat out last season as redshirts. They lifted weights all summer.
Tebbs also ran 3 1/2 miles a day and spent two hours playing. A guard, he has a 37-inch vertical leap and is expected to have an impact even on a team with backcourt stars like Simon, Bibby and Terry.
The Wildcats return not only their entire eight-man rotation, but three other lettermen. In all, Arizona has 98 percent of its scoring and 98 percent of its rebounding back.
``It’s unusual to have a team like this one, where everybody is back,″ Olson said. ``It certainly helps us time-wise, because things that probably would take three days to put in piece by piece now take one day, just a review of what we did.″
Its very youth may explain the team’s inconsistency last year.
Bibby improved his scoring average from 13.5 points during the season to 18 points in the tournament.
And Simon also got better, from 18.4 points a game to 22. Both helped offset the slump of swingman Michael Dickerson, whose team-high 18.9 scoring average in the season tailed off to 10.8 in the tournament. But Dickerson came up big on defense. Against Kentucky, he was credited with being the main reason Ron Mercer took just nine shots.
Less noticed but just as significant for the tournament run and this season’s outlook are the strides made by Bramlett, a 6-11 junior who had the biggest one-season improvement Olson has ever seen.
Bramlett went from 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds to 8.1 points and 6.9 rebounds, becoming the first sophomore to lead the Wildcats in rebounding in a decade. Throughout the season, he grew in strength and poise.
He believes the inside game will be key this year, with big contributions from himself, backup Donnell Harris and forwards Wessel, 6-6 sophomore Gene Edgerson and 6-8 senior Bennett Davison.
``Everybody came back with a lot more confidence, especially the inside guys, and it’s just going to continue,″ Bramlett said. ``The guards are looking for us more.″
As defending champs, the Wildcats will be watched more by everyone, especially their opponents.
End Adv for weekend editions, Nov. 8-9