Wildcats Seek a Lift From Banner Season


This is what Arizona knows:

You can lead a nation from the middle of your own conference. You can win a title even if you go 0-2 against UCLA.

You can also get tired of the Bruins badgering and jibing at you about it, tired enough for Arizona to not-so-subtlely set its 1997 national championship banner-raising ceremony for tonight, with the Bruins in the house and sweet Wildcat memories of March inducing thunder from the McKale Center crowd.

“They’re raising their banner--it’s more motivation to go in there and kick their butt,” said UCLA senior Kris Johnson, who, along with classmates Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson, is 5-1 against Arizona.


“Every year they talk their stuff in their papers. . . . I don’t want to get into that. But we’ll let our record against them do the talking.

“I don’t think Arizona really believes they can beat us. We just have the confidence--especially when we play them. We have too much pride to let them take it from us. . . . We’re going to definitely relish this chance and we’re going to get a ‘W’.”

Said Arizona’s Michael Dickerson, who has returned from the Wildcats’ title team along with the rest of Coach Lute Olson’s top seven players: “It lets them know we’ve won a national championship, also. And we’re trying to defend it.”

The Bruins have won the last three Pacific 10 Conference titles, in large part because Ed and Charles O’Bannon constantly bedeviled the Wildcats.

“They’ve won the Pac-10 three years in a row, that’s a long stretch,” said Arizona senior swingman Miles Simon, the Final Four most valuable player. “That’s something our guys want to be part of. We tell each other no one here has won the Pac-10. We know what we’ve got to do.”

Olson halfheartedly said they would have raised the banner against Oregon State if the Beavers happened to be the first home conference game.


But the Wildcats themselves hardly made a point to deny that they were putting up the banner tonight to gain an emotional edge over the Bruins.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” said Simon, the Santa Ana Mater Dei product who has had some of his biggest games against UCLA--including a 26-point performance in Arizona’s last victory in the series, Jan. 20, 1996.

“Losing five of six has really been eating away at me. What makes it more frustrating is that none of the games have been blowouts. UCLA did all the right things down the stretch by hitting the key shot or big free throw. We turned the ball over, missed free throws and generally didn’t do the job when we had to.”

This season, this is how the Pac-10 kicks off:

With the winners of the 1995 and the 1997 national titles matched up, with Stanford looming large, and with everybody else as basically backdrop for the Big Three.

Stanford is undefeated and ranked seventh. UCLA has one loss and is ranked ninth. Arizona has three losses, all to ranked opponents, and is No. 8.

Nobody else in the conference has anything close to a major nonconference victory or is anywhere near the top 25.


Which means, not only will the Pac-10 probably fail to match last season’s five teams in the NCAA tournament, it’s a fairly safe bet this season that the fifth-place team will not win the national title.

The teams, in alphabetical order:


Big questions: Has Olson been alternately fuming at all his regulars other than center A.J. Bramlett because they have a national-title hangover or because he knows they still have weaknesses on defense and rebounding? With valuable backup big man Donnell Harris out for the near future after gallbladder surgery and Bennett Davison in the doghouse, can Eugene Edgerson be a consistent performer?

Rosy scenario: That 27-0 run to open the second half last Tuesday against Kansas State is a portent of another offensive explosion . . . right back into the Final Four. A March 7 UCLA rematch at Pauley Pavilion could be for the No. 1 seeding in the West Regional.


Big question: Can interim Coach Don Newman keep the team playing with the same intensity it showed in the preconference season, with Jeremy Veal, Bobby Lazor and Mike Batiste becoming the most productive scoring trio in the league?

Rosy scenario: From the depths of their fall of scandal and resignation, to a spring NIT berth, with Newman getting the full-time job he probably already deserves.


Big question: With Harmon Gym under renovation, will the Golden Bears have more Oakland Arena victories this season than the Warriors?


Rosy scenario: Though the school is on probation, transfers Geno Carlisle, Mike Gill and Thomas Kilgore transform Cal from its 0-4 start to resemble the team that beat Arizona, Princeton and Villanova last season.

OREGON (5-4)

Big question: Center Michael Carson hurt his ankle and will redshirt, Kenya Wilkins graduated, the Ducks already have lost to San Diego State and Portland State. . . . Is this why Jerry Green bolted to take over the Tennessee program?

Rosy scenario: Senior Henry Madden maintains his 13.9-point and 5.3-rebound averages and finds a place on the all-conference team.


Big question: After gobbling up the likes of Kent, St. Martin’s and Sacramento State, can this young team raise its game for conference play?

Rosy scenario: Sophomore Corey Benjamin stays focused and rockets himself into the NBA lottery and the Beavers to a first-division finish for the first time since 1993.


Big questions: Who takes Brevin Knight’s place in the tense moments of big games? Is Tim Young ever going to assert himself as a dominant center?


Rosy scenario: Led by potential conference player of the year Mark Madsen (shooting over 70%), Stanford keeps up its plus-14 rebound differential, avoids a dangerous, quick team in the early rounds of the tournament, and shoves its way to the Final Four.

UCLA (9-1)

Big questions: Despite the return of Jelani McCoy and Kris Johnson, isn’t this team just about as thin up front as the one that got worn down by Minnesota in the Midwest Regional finals? Can J.R. Henderson play himself into the top-10 picks of the NBA draft?

Rosy scenario: Toby Bailey, Henderson and Johnson sweep to a fourth Pac-10 title, earn a No. 1 seeding and see what happens.

USC (4-6)

Big question: Do close losses to Kansas and Tennessee show development or the signs of a young team just good enough to lose?

Rosy scenario: Junior-college transfer Adam Spanich and freshmen Kevin Augustine, Greg Lakey and Shannon Swillis start clicking in mid-January, Jarvis Turner gets healthy, and USC makes a big late push.


Big question: Why is a team that starts two talented 7-footers (Todd MacCulloch and Patrick Femerling) and gets 52.4% shooting from guard Donald Watts losing to South Alabama and Oklahoma State?


Rosy scenario: The Huskies get dominant at home, steal a couple on the road, and finish a strong fourth in the conference, landing an NCAA bid.


Big question: Is Rodrigo de la Fuente (16.7 points, 7.3 rebounds) a rising star at shooting guard?

Rosy scenario: This season serves as a bearable transition from the Cougars’ success in past years to a better future.