Arizona's bus was rolling slowly away from Stanford's Maples
Pavilion last Saturday night when the voice of Driver Julio came
booming over the loudspeaker. "Well, boys, it looks like a couple
of Wildcats got loose and a couple of Cardinals got eaten up!"
Nibbling on a cold slice of pizza in the back, freshman point
guard Jason Gardner roared with delight, not so much because
Driver Julio had botched Stanford's singular nickname but because
Arizona's 68-65 win over the top-ranked Cardinal had seemed
wildly improbable only 90 minutes earlier.
How's this for an unlikely scenario? It's late in the first half,
and you're losing by nine. Your best athlete has broken his foot,
leaving you only seven healthy scholarship players. You're facing
the nation's No. 1 team on its home court in the biggest game of
the young college season, and your fate is in the hands of--no
And you still win.
If the Wildcats, 13-2 and ranked No. 2 in this week's AP poll, go
on to fabulous things in March, they'll look back fondly to the
opening minutes of last Saturday's second half, when Gardner
spearheaded a game-tilting, Maples-wilting 18-4 run. He whistled
a seeing-eye pass to center Loren Woods for a layup. Then he
seduced his defender with a crossover and drained a
three-pointer. Then he popped from 25 feet for another three.
After one basket the normally reserved Gardner got so jacked up
that he celebrated by turning and holding his follow-through--Talk
to the hand!--for Stanford's snarky Sixth Man student section.
Nobody, least of all the Cardinal players, had an answer for his
heroics, and when the stunning victory was complete, Gardner had
scored a career-high 22 points.
This carrot-topped point guard is infinitely more creative and
fun to watch than, well, Carrot Top. In one sequence against
bewildered Stanford, Gardner literally dribbled a circle around
the other nine players on the floor. Through Sunday he was
averaging 12.0 points, 5.6 assists and, most revealingly, 35.4
minutes a game as a point guard, leading to this conclusion:
During a season in which freshmen are having a profound impact,
Gardner has been the most influential rookie in the country. "He
has to be," Wildcats coach Lute Olson said after Saturday's win,
the 600th of his career. "Look how many minutes he's playing for
us. We rely on Jason, and we'd really be in trouble without him."
Gardner is only the latest in a long line at Point Guard U. The
roster of Olson's NBA-dwelling alumni traces back through Jason
Terry, Mike Bibby, Damon Stoudamire and Steve Kerr at Arizona. In
fact, it reaches all the way to Ronnie Lester at Iowa, where
Olson was the coach from 1974 to '83. Gardner also suggests an
obvious question for Bob Knight, Gene Keady and Indiana governor
Frank O'Bannon: Who let this guy out of your state? At
Indianapolis's North Central High last year, Gardner won both the
state title and Indiana's Mr. Basketball award, yet he always had
his heart set on Arizona. Granted, Tucson's dry heat is better
for Gardner's asthma, but.... "I did a lot of research," he says,
"and I liked the way Arizona gets the ball up and down the floor
and Coach O's history of getting point guards to the next level."
It's no easy matter, though, for a freshman point guard to earn
the respect of his older teammates. Reserve guard Josh Pastner is
convinced that Gardner established his street cred during the
first two weeks of the school year. At the time, the Wildcats'
pickup games, far removed from the supervision of coaches, were
dragging, mainly because players were calling fouls every time
they missed a shot. Then Gardner stepped in. "When Jason speaks,
guys listen," Pastner says. "He was mad, and he got in people's
faces and said, 'Hey, we've got to stop calling fouls.' After
that the games picked up to a whole new level."
To hear Olson describe it, developing pro-quality point guards is
a classic nature-versus-nurture balancing act. For while he's
correct when he says that Gardner and his predecessors have been
blessed with certain unteachable skills--leadership,
explosiveness, court sense--he's just as persuasive when warning
that Gardner, as a freshman, still has a lot to learn. After
Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin dropped 23 points on Gardner during
the Huskies' 78-69 victory in December, Olson told reporters that
Gardner had taken the matchup too personally. Likewise, Olson
preached restraint to those who would unduly praise Gardner after
his transcendent performance on Saturday. "As soon as Jason and
our other guards treat the free throw line as a stop sign, we'll
be in very good shape," he said. "High school guards always think
closer is better, and at this level closer is the worst thing you
can get, unless you have a layin. We've shown Jason tapes of
Damon Stoudamire rocking people back on their heels and popping
What, specifically, makes for a good point guard program? Isiah
Thomas, considered by some the best ever at the position,
believes Olson and Knight are the preeminent point guard coaches
in the college game for a simple reason: freedom. "It's because
they let you play," Thomas says. "Point guard isn't a defined
position. You need multiple skills to understand the
two-through-five positions and, if need be, to play all those
positions within the confines of the offense. Stoudamire plays on
the ball, off the ball and posts up, and it's the same with
[Indiana senior] A.J. Guyton. That's why my college choices came
down to Lute Olson and Bob Knight." While one suspects that
Thomas is being generous toward his old coach--Knight has lost
both Gardner and Luke Recker to Arizona in the past year--his
point makes sense: Before Olson and his staff can teach a single
thing, their system has to attract the talent.
Which is why the 1993-94 season was so important: It marked the
true beginning of Olson's glasnost era for guards. That year
Arizona led the vanguard toward perimeter-overloaded play by
switching its offensive focus from immobile big men--e.g., the
Twin Towers of Sean Rooks and Ed Stokes--to a hyperkinetic
three-guard attack, slotting Stoudamire at the point, Khalid
Reeves at the two and Reggie Geary at the three. "Coach changed
the whole philosophy," says Stoudamire, who raised his scoring
average from 11.0 to 18.3 points a game and drew his first
serious notice from pro scouts. "He let Khalid and me take a lot
more shots and be more creative with the ball, and we went to the
Final Four that year. That helped a lot with recruiting."
"If there was a turning point when we became more guard-oriented,
that was the year," says Wildcats assistant Jim Rosborough, who
first teamed up with Olson at Iowa in 1974. "Reggie was 6'2", but
he could guard anyone up to 6'8", and the system allowed us to
get up the floor quicker. It was pretty revolutionary at the
time. Other coaches were calling and wanting to know what we were
Some guards have improved more than others in Arizona's scheme.
For example, Bibby, now with the Vancouver Grizzlies, arrived on
campus in 1996 ready for the NBA as an offensive player, and he
says his most important development came on the defensive end.
According to Rosborough, the Arizona point guard who blossomed
the most was Terry, the high-socked Atlanta Hawks rookie who
morphed from a 9.8-minute-a-game bench warmer as a freshman to
the 10th pick in last year's draft. "He came in as a talented but
wild-haired guy who struggled delivering the ball and didn't care
about defense," Rosborough says. "We had to tone him down a bit.
He became a good defender, and look what happened."
It's too early to tell how much better Gardner will get, but this
much is known: When Olson says, "We rely on Jason," he's
repeating what he said last year about Terry, who, beyond
averaging 21.9 points, was so critical to Arizona's attack--he
logged 38.2 minutes a game--that the Wildcats coaches believe they
gave him too much responsibility. Indeed, if Terry had a mediocre
game, Arizona usually lost, as it did to Oklahoma in the first
round of the NCAA tournament.
The coaches' concern this season is whether Gardner can continue
handling the workload. Then again, he has more support than Terry
did. Four Wildcats were averaging between 12 and 15 points
through Sunday. Woods, the mobile 7'1" transfer from Wake Forest,
has shed his mercurial reputation, and he sliced up Stanford's
vaunted big men for 16 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
Bruising forward Michael Wright has been solid, averaging 13.9
points a game and a team-high 8.7 rebounds. Gardner's roommate
and backcourt sidekick, freshman Gilbert Arenas, remains the
Wildcats' biggest surprise, providing unexpected scoring pop
while trailing only Gardner in minutes played. The big question,
however, is whether Arizona can get by with only those seven
scholarship players for the next two months after forward Richard
Jefferson, its most electrifying player, broke his right foot
three minutes into last Saturday's game.
The pressure on Gardner will only increase, but amid all this
talk of player education and high-tech coaching philosophies, it
may put things in perspective to note that Gardner's first point
guard lessons came from a German shepherd. As a four-year-old,
Jason would repair to the family's basement every night with his
dog, Dexter, and the two would go one-on-one using a Nerf ball on
Jason's supercool Basketball Jammers indoor backboard-and-goal
set. "I'd dribble the ball," Gardner says, "and the dog would try
and take it from me. Every now and then he'd grab it, and I'd
have to wrestle with him to get it back."
In other words the German shepherd was far more successful than
any of the Cardinal defenders were, though the pooch angle has a
poignant twist. Dexter, now 14 years old, was supposed to have
relocated from Indianapolis to Tucson last fall with Jason's
mother, Stephanie, but he never made the trip. "One day he got
out," Stephanie says. "We don't know what happened to him, but
he's around somewhere, and Jason thinks he's trying to get to
Wherever you are, Dexter, your protege is doing just fine, to say
nothing of your teaching colleagues. As Olson and his staff know,
the proof is in what you produce, and with Gardner they're making
a very, very good point.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH RISING STAR In the season of the freshman, Gardner, who scored 22 points against the Cardinal, has been the country's top rookie.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SUB STANDARD Luke Walton, son of Hall of Famer Bill, stepped in for the injured Jefferson and helped anchor the Wildcats' defense.
If the Wildcats go on to fabulous things in March, they'll look
back fondly on Saturday's second half.