Missing Person

Times Staff Writer

You can't blame this bracket mess on the NCAA tournament committee, but it appears Arizona earned a No. 1 seeding in the West at the same time star guard Jason Gardner's jump shot was shipped South.

Really, it's OK to joke.

Arizona coaches and players will say anything to keep things light in the hope Gardner will snap out of his two-game, four-for-29 shooting slump.

In Arizona's first-round victory over Vermont, Wildcat Coach Lute Olson left Gardner in a wipeout game just so the team's leading scorer could knock down one outside shot.

Gardner finally did, with 6:41 left.

Riding up the team's hotel elevator later, Olson told Gardner that someone asked him if he was good shooter and Olson said "right now Jason is one for one."

You have to laugh, otherwise you stress out even more and the circumference of the basket, in your head, shrinks to the size of a wedding ring.

Senior forward Rick Anderson insists Arizona can beat Gonzaga today at the Huntsman Center and make a deep run this tournament even if Gardner's slump continues.

"Yes, I think so," Anderson said Friday. "It's not going to matter that much. He can do so many things. Penetrate. Dish. Create."

It's true that while Gardner made two of nine shots and scored only four points Thursday in the 80-51 romp against Vermont, he contributed six assists and seven rebounds.

It is also true Gonzaga is not Vermont and that Gardner probably has to snap out of his funk for Arizona to fulfill its national title hopes

"It happens," Wildcat forward Luke Walton said of these things. "But the slump won't last much longer. Someone's going to pay."

First, let's clear up a misconception: Gardner, a starter since his freshman year, leads the team with his 14-points-per-game average, but he has always been a scorer more than an outside artist.

He has made only 40% of his career shots and tends to run hot and cold. He has had two-game stretches this year in which he has made 15 of 23 attempts and 13 of 26, and two-game stretches when he produced lines of six for 24, five for 19 and, most recently, four for 29.

Teammates who implore Gardner to keep shooting might be horrified to know that, in 12 NCAA tournament games, the guard has made only 40 of 119 attempts (33.6%) and is 16 for 70 on his three-point attempts.

In the 2001 national title game against Duke, Gardner made two of 11.

Yet, Gardner is one of the unquestioned leaders on this senior-driven Wildcat team and keeping his confidence up is important because he does so many other things to win games.

"He's one of the leaders, if not the main leader on this team," Walton said. "He can't get down or it might affect the rest of this team."

Gardner admits the timing of his slump could not have been worse.

"It comes with the game of basketball," Gardner said. "You can't worry about it. As long as I'm out there and not worried about the shot, and playing defense, and being a leader out there, I know the shot is going to come."


Oh yeah, Gardner gets advice.

Olson thinks his guard is aiming and steering the ball instead of "popping" the shot with his wrists.

Gardner says he is not one to break down tapes and try to find mechanical flaws in his shooting stroke because that only leads to paralysis by analysis.

"People have been telling me I need a little bit more lift, but I think the shot is right there," he said. "A lot of the shots are just rimming in and out. It's just one of those things you have to fight through and just stay with it."

Anderson says it's all in Gardner's head, just a 10-foot birdie putt in golf.

Anderson knows, because his roommate is Arizona golfer Ricky Barnes, the 2002 U.S. Amateur champion.

"When he's putting good he doesn't even think," Anderson said of Barnes. "He just goes out there and strokes it."

Anderson's advice to Gardner is to "let it flow."

Every shooter slumps. Anderson made only 10 of 30 shots during a four-game stretch before he broke out with 23 points against UCLA in the Pacific 10 tournament.

"It started getting in my dome," Anderson said "It's like, 'What am I doing? You're a shooter. Shoot the ball.' "

Simple as that?

"Simple as that," Anderson said. "You've worked on it. Mastered it. He's been shooting the ball his whole life.

"Just shoot."

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