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1 Arizona How confident are these Wildcats? They're already staking out their place in history


All right, Loren Woods, everyone in Tucson claims the
most-talked-about bad back in college basketball has completely
healed. Can you prove it? "Right here in the locker room?" he
asks. Yep, right here. Nodding gravely, the 7'1" Woods stands on
the red carpet and launches into a routine that would make Savion
Glover proud. He bends over, touching his fingertips to the
floor, segues into a series of high knee lifts and then crashes
onto his back--oof!--taking an imaginary charge. Now he's up again,
coiling and leaping and hitting a ceiling tile 12 feet above with
a resounding slap!

Big smile. "How's that?"

Not bad, especially since Woods had just finished a grueling
three-hour practice during which the compressed disc that
sidelined him for the final five weeks of last season was far
from his mind. Two operations later, Woods has a clean bill of
health, and so does Arizona, which, as Wisconsin showed in last
season's NCAA tournament upset of the Wildcats, is hardly
invincible without its shot-swatting, Skippy-smooth center. "No
question," coach Lute Olson says, "Loren makes the difference
between this team being rated among the top teams in the country
and being back a ways."

Well, maybe, as long as you consider "back a ways" being No. 2.
After all, how often in today's transient world of college
basketball does a team that was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA
tournament one season have five starters back the next? (The last
to do it was Arkansas in 1994-95) What's more, the entire quintet
is among the 50 players nominated for the Wooden Award, while--oh
the injustice!--all but one made the 30-member short list for the
Naismith Award.

In other words, Arizona hardly needed to campaign for SI's
endorsement as the best team in the land, though the spin doctors
of the desert were all too ready and willing to do so. "If we're
not ranked No. 1, then people should have their heads checked,"
said junior forward Richard Jefferson. "With all the experience
we have, there's really no comparison, not even with Duke, but
the only way for us to prove it is to step out there and play."
Woods had the audacity to predict on media day that "if we win
the national championship and we play to the level we're capable
of playing, then we'll be the greatest team" in college
basketball history.

That sound you hear is the thump of John Wooden's chin hitting
the floor ("Loren obviously hasn't been alive for as long as I
have," Olson says), but if you can cut through the hype, consider
this: The Wildcats have more than just a frighteningly talented
lineup; they also have players who understand their roles within
Olson's high-flying system. Guys like Michael Wright, the burly
junior forward whose ruthlessly efficient post play and
Garbo-like manner belie his impact (15.5 points and 8.7 rebounds
a game last season). A Chicago native, Wright spent part of the
summer balling on the Rucker playgrounds in Harlem, and though
Wright will still pick up plenty of garbage buckets inside, Olson
hints that "we'll give Michael the opportunity to face up more
this season, since he has a nice shooting touch."

Olson is convinced that Wright's frontcourt mates, Jefferson and
Woods, would have turned pro after last season had they not
suffered serious injuries. Now fully recovered from a stress
fracture in his right foot, the spring-legged Jefferson has
committed to becoming a better defender. "I'm trying to prove
that I'm not just an athlete," he explains. It's an admirable
goal, but chances are that Jefferson will continue rendering the
McKale Center faithful breathless with his thundering dunks and
not with his half-court D.

As spectacular as the front line will be, the guard tandem of
sophomores Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas could be even
stronger. The pick of most pundits as last season's national
freshman of the year, Gardner logged nearly 37 minutes a game and
tired down the stretch. Now, having added 10 pounds of muscle, he
should be more resilient. Though Gardner's roommate Arenas was
the only Wildcats starter snubbed by the Naismith committee, he
led Arizona in field goal attempts a year ago while averaging
15.4 points a game.

Yet for all of the Wildcats' star power, their linchpin is Woods,
the Wake Forest transfer who last year erased any lingering
doubts about his toughness in the post. Maybe it was his
team-leading 15.6 points a game or his Division I record-tying 14
blocks against Oregon, or simply his stellar court vision for a
center, but Woods was Arizona's indispensable player, as the
Wildcats unhappily confirmed in the postseason.

Woods fell and landed awkwardly on his back in a game against
Washington State last Feb. 12, and doctors later told him that
another crash landing could be career-threatening. He had surgery
on April 5, when four screws and a plate were inserted into his
back to stabilize the 12th thoracic and first lumbar vertebrae
and repair a compression injury to the disk between them, and
again on April 7, when the screws were adjusted. Woods admits
wondering as recently as July if he would be able to approach
last season's level of play. He lifted weights like a man
possessed over the summer, and ever since he started playing
again in August, he has been getting his basketball legs back.

Truth be told, finding any weaknesses in the Wildcats feels a lot
like nitpicking. Yes, Arenas needs to improve his 29.2% shooting
from three-point range. Yes, overconfidence could haunt them.
Yes, injuries to Woods or Gardner could put a halt to the
proceedings in an instant. But with the strongest bench they've
had in years, don't bet against them. "If you look at UNLV's
teams in the early 1990s, I think we have the chemistry to be a
team like that," says Gardner.

There they go again, bringing up the top teams of all time. It's
a fool's errand, of course, but there's also something endearing
about unvarnished confidence. For now, though, we'll just call
the Wildcats the best team in 2000-01 and leave it at that.

--Grant Wahl

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Ahead of the pack A healthy 7'1" Woods puts the already deep and talented Wildcats far above the rest of the nation's elite teams.



SF [*]Richard Jefferson 6'7" Jr. 11.0 ppg
PF [*]Michael Wright 6'7" Jr. 15.5 ppg
C [*]Loren Woods 7'1" Sr. 15.6 ppg
SG [*]Gilbert Arenas 6'3" So. 15.4 ppg
PG [*]Jason Gardner 5'10" So. 12.6 ppg

1999-2000 record: 27-7
Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 8
[*]Returning starter