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Looking Back At Gardner At Arizona

gardnerThe Jason Gardner era at Arizona ended quite some time ago. But this is a look back:

He will arrive on campus, then squeeze into his first dormitory room and get that little queasy feeling about being so far from home and even farther from high school.

He is just a freshman and stands just 5-10, so it may seem overstated or premature to stamp such a label on the next several years of Wildcats basketball. But this is how they’ve come to mark time in Tucson.

The way quarterbacks at Notre Dame and tailbacks at Southern California once were burdened with the expectation of Heisman trophies, the Arizona point guard now can’t avoid becoming a top 10 selection in the NBA draft. Damon Stoudamire went seventh to Toronto in 1995. Mike Bibby went second to Vancouver in 1998. Jason Terry went 10th to Atlanta this year.

Gardner did not need Lute Olson and his sales staff to explain this. He made it known after his sophomore season at North Central High in Indianapolis that he wished to be recruited by Arizona. That’s a message Olson quickly returned.

“You’ve got to look at it from that standpoint,” Gardner says. “If you want to go to the next level, you’ve got to look at what they do with your position.”

Olson felt strongly enough about possibly landing Gardner for 1999-2000 that he quit recruiting point guards for last season’s team, figuring Terry could handle the job as a senior and the gaping vacancy he would leave would be enticing to Gardner.

“He’s the kind of point guard we’ve had success with,” Olson says. “He’s very much a team player. He’s a guy who can score when he needs to, but he’s very unselfish.

“And the thing that’s going to help him at the start is the great job his high school coach did with him from the standpoint of strength. He and Damon are both the same size, and when Damon came in, he weighed 142 pounds. Jason already weighs 175.”

Gardner is definitely from the point guard mold Stoudamire helped popularize: compact, powerful, economical, versatile.

Gardner’s size is more a problem for opponents attempting to deal with his quickness than a handicap when he defends bigger guards. He can burst into the lane and is strong enough to finish the play when he arrives. He does not waste time or energy on flash. He is a fine outside shooter who can get his team a basket when it’s needed.

Olson insists Gardner will face competition from sophomore Ruben Douglas and recruits Gilbert Arenas and Lamont Frazier but admits the others have been primarily wing players. “It’s not that he’s going to walk in and he’s just there,” Olson says, “but I feel comfortable with him because he knows what it takes to win.”

The last time Arizona went with a freshman point guard, things worked out well. In Bibby’s first year (1996-97), the Wildcats won 19 regular-season games, then six more in the postseason to claim their first NCAA championship.

This team is top 10-caliber. It owns a more imposing inside game with monstrous power forward Michael Wright joined by 7-0 center Loren Woods, a transfer from Wake Forest.

Aside from Bibby, though, the main ingredients to the title team and its powerful successor were wings Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon. This is where these Wildcats must improve. Small forward Richard Jefferson generated questions with a late fade as a freshman but needs only typical progress to be outstanding. Somebody will have to make some shots from the second guard spot. If not, the pressure on Gardner will increase.

“I always set goals,” says Gardner, not one to aim low. “I would love to play in the Final Four, just because the Final Four is back in Indy. I would be able to come home and see family, see a lot of close friends-and be able to play in front of the crowds. … I know Indiana has great crowds.

“IU fans were always at my games, but I don’t think I took that much heat for leaving. They always tell me I should have stayed in-state, but that I chose a good school.”

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