LOS ANGELES -- Last Friday, a half-hour after his team routed the Oregon State Beavers in the Pacific-10 Conference tournament semifinals, junior Hassan Adams stood at his locker, explaining where the Arizona Wildcats still had room for improvement.
"One thing I really want us to do better is when we get on teams and put 'em down . . . we've just got to take 'em down and keep 'em down," he said. "We tend to let people back into games and make it a little bit harder than what it is."
Ivan Radenovic, left, and Arizona fell to Washington in the Pac-10 championship game; still, the Wildcats are "playing the best we've played all year long," Coach Lute Olson said.
(Kevork Djansezian -- AP)
Coming off a 31-point win, his comments seemed misplaced, but they turned out to be incredibly prescient.
A night later, in the championship game, Arizona (27-6) blew an eight-point halftime lead and eventually fell to the Washington Huskies, 82-71. The loss on national television proved significant, catapulting Washington to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament while dropping Arizona to a No. 3 seed, and causing most bracket gurus to write off the Wildcats as a national title contender.
But for Arizona Coach Lute Olson, the Pac-10 tournament was less about winning a trophy -- the Wildcats had claimed the conference's regular season title -- and more about preparing for what lay ahead.
"We're going to get better," he said. "And that's the reason I think [the Pac-10] tournament has been good for us, because with three extra games, it's given us a chance to keep working on those things that we feel need to be corrected."
Do not mistake this Arizona team for last year's, which lost to Seton Hall in the opening round of the tournament. With the exception of Andre Iguodala, who left school for the NBA and the Philadelphia 76ers, many of the names may be the same, but the team is playing a different brand of basketball.
"Togetherness," explained Adams. "We're playing together. That's a big thing. Making extra passes. Not worrying about who's scoring the basketball. Who's on is who's on. Just get it to them."
Offensively, Arizona is a juggernaut, and its trademark of late has been devastating second-half runs. Against UCLA on Feb. 12, the Wildcats trailed, 39-38, at halftime. In the first seven minutes of the second half, Arizona outscored the Bruins 23-5 and won, 83-73.
Facing Oregon State in the Pac-10 semifinals, the Wildcats put on their most astounding display to date. Leading by five at the half, Arizona went on a 12-0 run, then outscored the Beavers 25-9 over the final 10 minutes.
"It's been something that's happened with this team pretty much all year long," Olson said. "Probably, it's just a case of getting in and getting focused on what we need to do. Maybe there's a couple of things that happen in the first [half and] they're able to make the adjustment."
The Wildcats' primary offensive star is Salim Stoudamire (cousin of the Portland Trail Blazers' Damon Stoudamire), a 6-foot-1 senior guard who, in the words of Adams, can "shoot the lines off the basketball."
Stoudamire averages 18.3 points and leads the nation in three-point shooting percentage at 53 percent. But it is his growth as a leader that has impressed Olson the most.
"He is really into the team," he said. "He's always been a great defender, but I think it's his leadership and the fact that the guys know that, hey, Salim cares about what this team does. If he gets seven shots in a game, that's fine. If he gets 14 in a game, that's fine. I think his attitude has been a real key."