They have heard the doubters who say they are headed for a fall,
that the season to come is too full of physical and mental
obstacles for them to repeat as national champions. But compared
with what the Arizona Wildcats endured together last May, how
bad can the trials ahead be?
Just six weeks after whipping No. 1 seeds Kansas, North Carolina
and Kentucky to win the NCAA title, the newly crowned champions
embarked on a 23-day exhibition tour of Australia, where, to
hear the survivors tell it, hardship and deprivation met them at
every turn. There was alien voltage that blew out their VCRs,
Aussie barbers who could not be trusted with Wildcats coifs, and
flies so big "they made off with our luggage," according to
guard Miles Simon. And the cuisine? Well, point guard Mike Bibby
doesn't mind a little adventure, but not when he sits down to
eat. While his more daring teammate, backup center Donnell
Harris, tried camel and crocodile meat, Bibby ate four
McDonald's cheeseburgers a day for 23 straight days. "It was
terrible," he says. "I had really been trying to cut down on
But neither the joy of victory nor the hardships of travel seem
to have deterred Arizona in its effort to improve. "I haven't
seen any complacency with these guys," says coach Lute Olson.
"In fact, I don't see any change other than that they are a
whole lot better than they were. A.J. Bramlett is not even the
same player. And I think we can say that about all four of the
Bramlett, a 6'11" junior center who led all players with 10.3
rebounds a game during the NCAAs (up from 6.2 during the regular
season), has continued what Olson calls the biggest one-season
improvement he has ever seen in one of his players. He spent the
summer in the weight room and on the court, working out
religiously with Harris and forwards Eugene Edgerson and Bennett
Davison. "Our inside play is considerably improved because of
strength that's been gained, not weight," says Olson. "We keep
saying it's fine to put on weight as long as it's weight that
helps you be quicker."
From the beginning of pickup games, Bramlett has felt that his
teammates' improved power and quickness could lead the Cats to
another title. "Everyone on this team amazes me in some way,"
says Bramlett. "Every guy has come back stronger and with new
With Olson welcoming back 11 letter winners from last
year--including all five starters--and adding redshirt freshmen
Quynn Tebbs and Justin Wessel, who practiced with the team every
day, that's a dizzying number of new moves. "We're going to
surprise a lot of people," says Simon, who was the Most
Outstanding Player at the Final Four. "We've got some new stuff."
That all sounds promising, but isn't Arizona going to crumble
under the pressure of being the hunted? "I don't see that
happening with us because pressure doesn't really bother us,"
says junior Jason Terry, who can back up Bibby at point guard or
join him in a devastatingly quick three-guard lineup. "We've got
leaders on this team."
One of the leaders, of course, is Bibby, a supersized talent who
overcame his fast-food fixation and returned to school in better
shape than ever and with more confidence in his outside shot.
Since arriving at Arizona last year, Bibby has devoted his spare
time to improving his jumper, and he gives most of the credit
for its development to fellow sophomore Josh Pastner, a
seldom-used reserve who aspires to be an NBA coach. "We became
friends last year because we both like to work on our shots, and
we would rebound for each other," says Bibby, who shot a very
respectable .394 from beyond the three-point arc last year. "Now
he mostly rebounds for me. If my shot goes bouncing off the rim,
he knows what went wrong and why. He's an unbelievably good
coach. If he wasn't here, I wouldn't have shot as well as I did
last year. I owe everything to him."
After a summer separation during which Pastner coached a youth
team in Houston, and Bibby shot until he made 500 baskets each
day at a church gym in Phoenix, the two are working together
again. They are even roommates, though they seem to live at
McKale Center, where they shoot baskets late into the night,
often in the company of other teammates.
The Wildcats are aware that they'll need every edge they can get
this year. "We know everyone is going to be going hard at us, as
if it's the championship game," says senior forward Michael
Dickerson. "But we're loose, we're confident, we're family. And
we've been through tough times before." --KELLI ANDERSON
Returning Starters [Five]
Points per Game '96-97 83.9
PPG by All Returning Players 82.1