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Arizona fans look out.....'Cats losing more depth
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Old 05 Dec 2003, 03:07 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Arizona fans look out.....'Cats losing more depth

By Andy Katz

Isaiah Fox wasn't a starter at Arizona. He was a role player. Today, he's rehabbing.

No big deal? Well, losing a role player to injury normally isn't when a team has Final Four talent. But Arizona's situation is hardly the norm this season.

On the surface, Fox may not appear to be a great loss. Just as Kansas should be fine while Michael Lee, a starting guard but more of a defensive specialist, heals from a broken collarbone. The Wildcats still have a preseason All-American candidate at his position in Channing Frye and enough talent in Tucson to warrant a top-10 ranking.

Arizona's starting five can run with any in the country. Frye is a double-double ready to happen every night, while Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala rebound and run like few other players their size. The backcourt of Salim Stoudamire and freshman Mustafa Shakur can be the best on any given night.

But here's where the Wildcats and Jayhawks situations differ: depth.

The Jayhawks had Jeff Hawkins and freshman J.R. Giddens waiting to take over Lee's time. In the first game after Lee's injury, Hawkins scored 19 points, made 7 of 9 shots and 5 of 7 attempts from behind the 3-point arc. Giddens, meanwhile, scored 12 points in the win at TCU this past Monday. Not bad for replacing Lee, who had only averaged 6.5 points in two previous games.

Arizona will miss Isaiah Fox's toughness more than his offense.

Fox was the Wildcats only reliable frontline reserve. He wasn't expected to score, although he had 14 in Arizona's rout of Northern Arizona in its opener. No, Fox was Arizona's resonate tough guy, its most physical player in the post. He was also Frye's backup, the player Lute Olson could call off the bench to give Frye a breather, or call on to play next to Frye when an opponent decided to go big.

But Fox won't play another minute for the Wildcats this season after injuring his knee against Florida a week ago and undergoing knee surgery this week. And, while his name may not exactly resonate nationally, the Wildcats simply aren't prepared to absorb even the loss of a role player.

Arizona doesn't have another player like a Hawkins or Giddens to replace Fox. The player Olson calls off the bench now is an extremely raw freshman named Kirk Walters. But it's not as if Olson didn't prepare for such an injury. Arizona wasn't supposed to be left with only one true low-post player threat in Frye, let alone a single backup in Fox.

A year ago, Dennis Latimore was pouting on the bench about playing time so he bolted on Feb. 25, two weeks before the end of the season.

He's now sitting at Notre Dame instead of competing for a starting spot at Arizona.

"He'd be playing as much as he'd wanted to play now," Arizona coach Lute Olson said.

The Wildcats also thought they would have Ndudi Ebi at power forward next to Frye this season. Arizona signed the Ebi out of Westbury Christian H.S. (Texas) with the intention of starting him. They had no idea that he would jump to the NBA, where Minnesota drafted him in the first round. College teams losing high school players to the NBA isn't new, but it just hadn't happened to the Wildcats.

Arizona produces NBA players. Ebi was the first, however, to tell Olson he was headed to the desert, only to become a mirage.

The Wildcats are still sensitive when it comes to Ebi's decision. The staff feels he was pushed into the pros. They weren't pleased when Ebi showed up at a workout in Chicago in early June. They even begged him not to make what they considered a mistake.

Now, though he was a first-round pick, Ebi is averaging 1.9 minutes of mop-up duty in seven appearances for the Timberwolves. He's shooting 14.3 percent and has scored two points.

It's safe to say Ebi would be producing double figures in points and a handful of rebounds a game had he stayed with Arizona.

But he didn't.

So, the Wildcats entered the summer with only two forwards. And it only got worse.

"In 21 years, I've only had two kids not make it academically and Chris Dunn was the second," Olson said.

Dunn, a 6-6 forward who redshirted last season, was supposed to give the Wildcats the kind of reserve minutes that Connecticut could potentially get out of Hilton Armstrong or a healthy Marcus White. Instead, Dunn couldn't cut it academically and is now attending Pima Junior College (Ariz.). There is a slim chance, according to the staff, that he could be eligible for the second semester.

"(Chris) was right there to compete for the minutes at the four spot," Olson said. "We didn't want more than 10 guys frankly on scholarship with three walk-ons, but then we find out about Chris (in August) and then we tried to recruit Lawrence Roberts."

That failed, too.

Roberts played for Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner during a summer when the two Houston natives were back in Texas four years ago. When the NCAA allowed Baylor players to transfer without penalty, the odds were in favor of Arizona landing Roberts. Roberts committed to making a visit to Tucson, but he had to make a stop first at Mississippi State.

He never made it to Tucson.

Instead of being paired with Frye to form one of the top frontlines in the country, Roberts (a preseason top 50 Wooden All-American candidate) is now the focal point of the Bulldogs' offense and a potential SEC player of the year.

"I didn't think we were too thin," Olson said.

But that was before Fox got hurt. Now, the Wildcats are scrambling to fill their frontcourt rotation -- for practices.

The Wildcats added 6-6 freshman Ryan O'Hara, a quarterback on the Arizona football team, just to give them another body inside to bang with Frye in practice. But without Fox in the rotation, the bottom line is Arizona will go with only seven major contributing players this season.

And one of those will be Walters, a slender 6-10 forward from Grand Rapids, Mich.. Honestly, Walters was considered a project pickup for the Wildcats when they had Dunn, Latimore and Fox. He wasn't highly recruited and there was some talk within Arizona's program of redshirting him when the Wildcats signed him. Instead, Walters moves into Olson's game rotation behind Frye.

"He's making great, great progress," Olson said. "He's learning the system, getting stronger and his weight is up. He had asked if we would consider redshirting him, but we never commit to doing that."

Walters could still redshirt, just not this season. His situation is similar to that of Ricky Anderson, who also was slated for a redshirt in freshman season, but was forced into action when Luke Walton was injured. Anderson redshirted two season later than expected, during Arizona's run to the 2001 national title game. Both Anderson and Walton concluded their senior seasons last March with an Elite Eight loss to Kansas.

Arizona isn't ready to raise any red flags just yet. With Fox playing just six minutes, depth did catch up to the Wildcats in the second half in a 78-77 loss to Florida in Springfield, Mass. Olson had to use Jason Renne, a former walk-on, a bit more than probably he would have had Fox not gotten hurt.

Adams, who would probably prefer to play strictly on the perimeter, will be the Wildcats' power forward. At 6-4, he may be the shortest "four-man" in the country. But with a 40-plus inch vertical leap, he can be an effective rebounder a tough matchup for bigger players. Olson said Adams could be the Wildcats' top rebounder.

"He'll give us a lot of flexibility inside and out," Olson said. "The biggest thing will be when he has to defend a big guy, but then his quickness could bother other big guys."

Olson said the Wildcats will obviously play quicker and rely heavily on the perimeter. That won't be a problem with Shakur pushing the tempo and Iguodala using his inside-out skills to produce points. Stoudamire, however, is shooting a 22.6 percent through two games. The new sixth man, Chris Rodgers, averaged only 2.5 points a game last season as a freshman, but has shown he's ready for more minutes with 17 against Florida and 14 in the opener.

And, the halfcourt offense will still go through Frye in the post. He just won't have Fox next to him to take some away of the pressure when the games get physical.Olson, and the rest of the coaching staff, concede that Frye isn't as physical as Fox.

Olson said the Wildcats won't be able to extend their defense as much as he'd like with only seven scholarship players. But conditioning will allow the 'Cats to play as up-tempo as they want.

"Isaiah was a presence at 260 pounds, able to bang people around. That's not something Channing can do," Olson said.

Arizona begins life after Fox on Saturday at Saint Louis before playing the marquee game of the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday against Texas. The Longhorns will test Arizona inside. Texas likes to be play physical inside behind James Thomas, although the Longhorns do have plenty of face-the-basket shooters. Marquette then arrives in Tucson on Dec. 13 -- a team that also prefers to bang rather than run.

When the Wildcats get into Pac-10 play, they'll still be the favorites with Stanford to finish atop the standings. The Cardinal are dealing with their own injury bug, as Josh Childress tries to shake a stress reaction in his left foot. Once healthy, Stanford would like nothing better than to see Rob Little, Justin Davis and Childress become the tougher team inside. Stanford, like most teams (if not all) Arizona will face the rest of the way, also has more bodies to throw at the 'Cats inside, with Joe Kirchofer and Matt Haryasz.

Arizona remains a team capable to reaching the Final Four. But getting to San Antonio became much harder with the loss of Fox -- a role player whose role may have been bigger than anyone thought six months ago.
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