- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

TUCSON, Ariz. It was enough to turn Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson's hair gray. Or at least lighten the few renegade strands in his famously silver 'do.

During a recent Wildcats practice, All-American center Loren Woods tangled with teammate Richard Anderson, stumbled like Gumby on the wrong end of a banana peel and landed flat on his surgically-repaired back. Woods injured the back in February, forcing him to sit out the final eight games of last season, including Arizona's upset loss to Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

As the lithe, 7-foot-1 Woods momentarily lay motionless on the floor, Olson could only wince, his expression that of a presidential candidate who has just seen his opponent retract a concession.

"Knowing the circumstances [with Woods'] back, yeah, I get butterflies in my stomach [when he falls]," Olson said. "It affects all of us. Loren gives us shot-blocking, a presence inside offensively. He brings a wealth of talent."

Not since Atlas has the fate of so many depended on one man's spinal column. Ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press, the Wildcats return all five starters from last season's 27-7 club and are a preseason favorite to reach the Final Four.

"At our best, we can beat any team in the country," small forward Richard Jefferson said. "We have enough talent to win a championship."

The fate of that talent, however, hinges largely on the health of Woods, a fifth-year senior who bypassed the NBA Draft and endured a summer of surgery and rehabilitation following a compression injury to a disc in his lower back.

Woods, an All-Pac-10 performer, averaged 15.6 points and 7.5 rebounds over the first 26 games of last season, giving Arizona its first legitimate threat at center since Maryland transfer Brian Williams (now Bison Dele) manned the pivot in the early 1990s. Moreover, Woods was a force on defense, blocking 102 shots including an NCAA record-tying 14 against Oregon to set an Arizona single-season record.

"With Loren down low blocking shots, teams don't get the back door layups, the easy shots or as many rebounds," Jefferson said. "But without him, we're not at full strength."

Case in point: Last season's NCAA West subregional, in which top-seeded Arizona was mauled by Big Ten bruiser (and eventual Final Four participant) Wisconsin without Woods.

Fielding a lineup decimated by injuries and without a player taller than 6-foot-9, the Wildcats simply were overpowered by the rough-and-tumble Badgers. Wisconsin rubbed out Arizona's interior game, ran a slow-down offense to perfection and held the Wildcats to an anemic 59 points, 17 below their regular season average.

"We worked so hard to get the No. 1 seed, and then we couldn't have everyone playing," Woods said. "And my teammates were a bit disoriented they weren't used to playing a team that big without me in the middle. Everybody says, 'Arizona always goes out early [in the tournament].' But if you put me in there, it's a totally different situation. It was really frustrating."

That frustration explains in part why Woods returned to Arizona instead of jumping to the NBA. A probable first-round draft pick, he passed up millions of dollars to spend the summer in Tucson, rehabilitating his back with the help of Wildcats trainer Ed Orr.

Woods initially hurt his back in a February game against Washington State, then saw his injury get worse after he contracted Valley Fever, a disease caused by inhaling fungus spores. In a pair of April operations, doctors implanted four screws and a plate in Woods' back to stabilize his 12th thoracic and first lumbar vertebrae and fix the compression injury to the disc between them.

Barely able to walk, Woods began his postoperative recovery with six grueling weeks of abdominal and lower back work. Shortly thereafter, he began lifting weights with Arizona strength coach Carla Garrett, increasing his bench press from a paltry 135 pounds to a more respectable 225.

By July, Woods was playing basketball again, roughly a month ahead of schedule. Doctors have given him their OK, and he looked fit in Arizona's exhibition opener against the EA Sports California All-Stars on Nov. 5, scoring 11 points in a 104-66 win.

"It was the hardest summer I've ever been through in my life, but it was good because it paid off," Woods said. "It used to be I didn't train all that hard in the summer. So maybe if I didn't get hurt, I wouldn't be as strong as I am now."

Likewise, the Wildcats expect to be a more robust team following a season in which injuries and transfers left Olson juggling as few as six available scholarship players. With Arizona's roster in disarray, reserve forwards Anderson, Luke Walton and Justin Wessel all saw time as starters, while the then-freshman backcourt of Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas logged heavy minutes.

This season, a better-rested Gardner (12.6 ppg, 4.8 assists a game) and Arenas (15.4 ppg) figure to compose one of the nation's top backcourts, while Walton (5.6 apg in Pac-10 play), Anderson and Wessel give the Wildcats frontcourt punch off the bench.

Add in starting junior power forward Michael Wright (15.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg), junior defensive specialist Lamont Frazier and redshirt senior Eugene Edgerson a hard-nosed, Afro-sporting member of Arizona's 1997 national championship squad and the Wildcats should field one of the deepest, most-balanced teams in recent memory.

How much talent does Olson have to work with? Consider this: All five Arizona starters are preseason Wooden Award candidates, the first time an entire starting lineup has been nominated in the award's history.

"This is a great team we have a lot of players who might consider going to the next level after this season," Jefferson said. "And we proved last year that even with half our players, we can beat most teams in the country.

"Plus, there's very few times where you'll have a team with this much experience. Loren, [Eugene and] Justin are all fifth-year seniors. Luke and I have been here three years. Our second five has just as much confidence as our first because they played so much last year."

Woods backed off from his Pac-10 media day prediction that Arizona could be "the greatest team" in college basketball history.

"People are looking at us like we're some super all-star Marvel Comics team, like we've all got special powers or something like that," he said. "But we're not the best team to ever play basketball. We're not going to beat teams by 100 points. We're just a good team that expects to win."

To win a title, though, the Wildcats will have to address a few significant flaws. Arizona's perimeter shooting a sore spot last season at 32 percent from beyond the arc must improve, as must its sometimes-stagnant halfcourt offense.

More importantly, the Wildcats must demonstrate that they can withstand the mental and physical strain that comes with being a marked team and find a way to win when circumstances call for ugly, desperate play, something they failed to do in their flop against Wisconsin.

"We're going to see everything this season," Gardner said. "We're going to see a team come out and hit every shot they throw up. We're going to see teams come out and try to be real physical and to push us around. Teams are going to throw a lot of things at us to throw us off, and we'll have to adjust."

At the center of it all is Woods, who knows all about adjustments. Two years ago, he struggled mightily under the weight of replacing departed All-American center Tim Duncan at Wake Forest, ultimately transferring to Arizona to escape the pressure.

This time around, Woods says he's ready to shoulder the load with the help of a plate and few screws.

"Off the court, I don't worry about too much, but on the court I always felt like I had to prove myself," he said. "But I'm done with trying to prove myself to people outside of my teammates and coaches.

"And I don't worry about my back anymore. I'm stronger and in better shape than last year. Period."

Provided that remains the case, the same can be said of the Wildcats.

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