Running to Atlanta

Running to Atlanta

Roman Veytsman

Every time Marcus Williams and Mustafa Shakur extend their hands to slap fives or pound fists, and every time they step into the huddle, they utter the same word: “”Atlanta.””

When Shakur came back to Tucson from his flirtation with the NBA Draft, the senior point guard began pointing verbally to that city in the Northwest corner of the Peach State.

“”That’s where we’re going,”” Shakur said. “”That’s our goal.””

Before long, forwards Williams and Ivan Radenovic caught on. When the team crowds around and everyone puts their hands in before and after practice, the goal of reaching the city where the Final Four is being held this year, a goal unattained by Arizona since 2001, is reiterated.

“”Every time we get in the huddle, we say, ‘One, two, three, Atlanta,'”” Shakur said.

But getting to Atlanta will mean not only conquering the dozen or more teams who have a legitimate shot to reach the Final Four in this parity-filled era of college basketball – it also means conquering the inner problems of last season.

Gone are the off-court distractions of Hassan Adams, the multiple distractions of Chris Rodgers and the injuries of Isaiah Fox, all seniors last year. Gone are the memories of a team that had the worst field-goal percentage in UA head coach Lute Olson’s tenure at Arizona and lost more games than any other since Olson’s first Arizona squad went 11-17.

Running with the Cats

After a down year offensively last season, the Wildcats look to push the pace to reach their goal of getting to Atlanta for the Final Four.

2006-07
Only time
will tell
2004-05
79.7 ppg
No. 10 nationally
2002-03
85.2 ppg
No. 1 nationally
2005-06
73.7 ppg
No. 68 nationally
2003-04
87.1 ppg
No. 1 nationally
2001-02
82.1 ppg
No. 6 nationally

But those memories are not forgotten.

“”I think last year we had the talent, but it was just the fact that guys weren’t on the same page, and that could crush your team right there,”” Shakur said. “”If you had one guy – two guys is even worse – but if you had one guy, then it’s just like that’s your missing piece, and he’s supposed to be a big part of your team. …It really hurts your team.””

“”You can’t play like that with negative vibes and that type of vibe within your team,”” he said. “”It just spreads throughout your team.””

Beside the obvious chemistry problems, last year’s squad couldn’t throw a basketball into the ocean if it was standing on a boat. The team shot a dismal 31.9 percent from 3-point range with no one aside from Williams, who shot 43.5 percent, even sniffing the 40 percent range.

The Wildcats missed 16 of their first 17 shots and shot just 23.5 percent in the first half in a 69-65 loss at Houston, a game also marred by Adams and Rodgers being disciplined for tardiness to a pre-game meal and a game that proved to serve as microcosm of the whole season.

Inserted are freshman slingers Chase Budinger and Nic Wise and junior guard Jawann McClellan, all of whom could have applied for the best shooter job last year. McClellan, who sat out the first semester because he was ineligible, played in only two games before suffering a season-ending wrist injury.

But in his freshman season, the Houston native shot 39.3 percent on 3-pointers and 46.8 percent overall.

“”Offensively, I felt our weakness a year ago was the consistency of our shooting,”” Olson said. “”I think this team will be a good shooting team. They have shown in practice that they like giving the ball up. It’s going to be a very unselfish team.””

In order to jump-start the offense even more, the offense has been simplified slightly and the Wildcats plan to play an offensive style similar to the Phoenix Suns’ run-and-gun approach.

Shakur spent the summer watching tapes of Suns point guard Steve Nash, whose squads have led the NBA in scoring the past five seasons, while McClellan watched tapes of the Wildcats’ 1997 and 1998 teams featuring Mike Bibby and UA assistant coach Miles Simon.

On the 10-year anniversary of Arizona’s 1996-1997 national championship, the Wildcats expect to turn up the engines offensively once again.

“”It’s a lot more running,”” said sophomore forward Fendi Onobun, who will play power forward after experimenting at the wing position toward the end of last year. “”The offense is not as a strict as it was last year. Pretty much it’s a simple motion. You have two posts at the elbows, and you just kind of get it and go.””

Though Shakur said it will be difficult to “”fully”” run the Suns’ style because of the wider land and the 3-second defensive rule in the NBA, there are aspects that lend to copying.

“”As far as getting the ball out, we’re working on whoever is closest to the ball, getting the ball out so we can push the ball up faster,”” he said.

Arizona has traditionally been a running team, leading the nation in scoring in 2002-03 and 2003-04 and being in the top 10 the last four years before falling to 68th last season. But with a team that Olson believes may be his deepest from an offensive standpoint, that ranking should go back up in a hurry if the Wildcats’ fast break comes back up to speed.

“”We will go as much up-tempo as our opponents will allow us,”” Olson said. “”Our goal is to score 70 percent or more from the break situation or what we call the early offense, where we’re getting into our halfcourt offense.

“”We’re going to try to push the tempo based on what we do offensively and defensively. I think we’ll be more up-tempo than what we’ve had here. At least that’s our goal.””

Personnel additions have also helped in offensive execution because Williams is no longer the lone Wildcat given the green light to spot up from the perimeter.

“”I think it’s more simple because we have guys who are willing to catch and shoot,”” Shakur said. “”Hassan was more of a slasher, and Chris was kind of unsure at times as far as the shots he wanted to take.

“”But guys like Jawann, Chase and Marcus, you give them a little bit of room when they catch the ball, they’re willing to shoot it, that makes it easy on everybody when Ivan makes a good pass. I make a good pass, those guys just catch and shoot and take good shots instead of forcing it into the lane.””

Williams, the team’s leading returning scorer averaged 13 points and 4.7 rebounds per game but bumped those numbers up to 17 and 7.5 respectively in the NCAA Tournament. Although he too talked about leaving for the NBA, Williams spent the summer honing his game and will be the team’s go-to guy down the stretch.

Joining him in the starting lineup will be Shakur and Radenovic, along with wings McClellan and Budinger if Olson decides to go small, or one of the two wings and senior center Kirk Walters if Olson decides to go big.

Off the bench, Arizona can go in several directions, with small guards Daniel Dillon and Wise and big guard J.P Prince, as well as forwards Mohamed Tangara, Bret Brielmaier, Onobun and athletic freshman Jordan Hill.

Whichever way Olson decides to turn, the Wildcats are poised to shake off last season and make a turn for Atlanta.

“”From day one, these guys have been on the same page,”” Olson said. “”They encourage, whether the guy’s on the other team or not. You just don’t see negative things happening on the court. You see everyone helping with the development of confidence in the individual players and in the team.

“”I feel as good about that as any team we’ve had here.””