It has been jokingly suggested that Clint Eastwood should be named commissioner of the Pac-10. After all, the rationale goes, Eastwood breathed life back into the Western with his movie Unforgiven. Perhaps he can do the same for another moribund form of entertainment, Western basketball.
It's a wasteland out West, with lightweight teams blowing across the bleak landscape like tumbleweeds. The Western season has been a mixture of the bitter (Cal's firing of coach Lou Campanelli and rumors that UCLA's Jim Harrick may be the next to go), the embarrassing (Stanford's losses to Big West doormat San Jose State and Division II Chaminade; and Oregon's summer trip to Europe, during which the Ducks finished 1-5 in basketball hotbeds Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) and the absurd (after taking a redshirt year to gain some needed bulk, Washington State forward David Vik returned a pound lighter). "It's a down year," says Arizona State coach Bill Frieder. "Don't let anybody kid you."
It has been such a down year that no one was quite sure how seriously to take fourth-ranked Arizona, one of the West's few shining lights, until the Wildcats earned a large measure of respect with a 70-60 victory over No. 8 Cincinnati at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on Sunday. Before that the Wildcats, who improved to 19-2 with the victory, had run up a 12-0 record in the Pac-10 and were threatening to become the first team to complete an undefeated season in the conference since UCLA went 14-0 in the old Pac-8 in 1977-78. Arizona's Pac-10 prowess, however, didn't do nearly as much for its reputation as Sunday's victory over a good team from east of the Mississippi did.
Hence the Wildcats were feeling pretty feisty afterward. Even Lute Olson, Arizona's normally unflappable coach, was talking trash. "People who pooh-pooh the Pac-10 better come out and play us, and then start talking," said Olson. "Talk is cheap. Get 'em out here. We've not backed off from anyone over the years."
Arizona has long been touchy about the perception that the West is soft, because that perception devalues their considerable accomplishments. (So has their chronic underachieving in the NCAA tournament, but that's another matter.) The Wildcats are sometimes so vehement in their defense of the West that they can say things that make them sound as if they've been out in the desert sun too long. For instance, Olson once stated that playing in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium "is like a walk in the park compared to [playing in Stanford's] Maples Pavilion."
Then again, the Wildcats have been in the Top 25 for 97 consecutive ranking periods; the only program in the country with a longer streak is Duke's. Yet according to Olson, "It's like death and taxes. Every year the Eastern and Midwestern press say, 'Yeah, Arizona's pretty good, but who have they beaten?' "
Until Sunday, Arizona didn't have much ammunition from this season to use in reply. After losing three of last season's starters, including center Sean Rooks, who now starts for the Dallas Mavericks, Arizona had looked as if it might slide to the level of its Western colleagues. Further, the Wildcats had dropped their two toughest nonconference games, at home against Arkansas in the season opener and at Providence in December.
Since then the Wildcats have used enthusiasm, team unity and quickness to make up for their lack of experience and polish. "We don't always make the right play," says senior forward Chris Mills, "but we never stop trying to make the right play, and that's just as important."
The blossoming of Mills may have made the biggest difference for Arizona. A fifth-year senior, he has done exactly what coaches ask seniors to do—he has ratcheted his game up a notch, leading the team in scoring (19.3 points per game at week's end) and rebounding (7.9), and he has spread his wings wide enough to take younger teammates under them. "If you removed all the things Chris has done on the court, he would still be our MVP," says Olson. "He sees a need, and he fills it without being asked. He's there when one of our freshmen has a problem and needs to talk. If there's a fight on HBO, he gets the whole team over at his place. He's been a leader in every sense of the word."
Mills has been especially effective when games have been on the line. Against Cincinnati, Mills, who finished with 23 points and nine rebounds, turned one of his four offensive boards into a three-point play that broke a 60-60 tie with 1:55 to go. The play was part of a 12-0 Arizona run that put the Bearcats away.
It's no coincidence that Mills has turned in some of his finest performances this season when several NBA scouts were in attendance. His preparations for a pro career became serious last summer, when he spent much of his time in his hometown of Los Angeles playing in pickup games with current and former pros, including Magic Johnson and the New York Knicks' Doc Rivers. "I was more comfortable playing with those guys than I am in the college game," says Mills. "I have this feeling that when I get to the next level, it's going to be, like, home."
Mills, who can play off guard or either forward spot, is the most versatile player on a remarkably versatile team. Against Cincinnati's full-court press, Olson often went to a smaller unit, taking 7-footer Ed Stokes out and going with three guards, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Reggie Geary. But the maneuverability of his players may be less important to Olson than their likability. It's no secret that his relationship with Rooks and some other former players was occasionally strained. "I think Lute was frustrated the last couple of years," says assistant coach Jim Rosborough. "Some guys were inclined to do things their own way."
Sunday's victory undoubtedly would have been more impressive had it occurred on a neutral court rather than on a home-away-from-home floor in an arena full of Arizona fans. How the Wildcats will fare against topflight teams in the NCAA tournament is hard to say. One thing is certain: They can't do any worse than last season's Wildcats, who fell to East Tennessee State in the first round.
For now, though, Arizona can live with the doubts. The Wildcats may not have all the answers yet, but at least they're starting to hear some different questions.