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Arizona's Woods has good times

He is comfortable in his role, healthy and ready to lead basketball's top-ranked team.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


Arizona senior center Loren Woods is enjoying life.

You can see it in his energetic step.

You can hear it in his euphoric tone.

"I'm having a lot of fun playing basketball," he said. "I'm happy to be here."

Why wouldn't he be? The Wildcats are the nation's top team in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today preseason polls, and Woods, healthy again after back surgery ended his season shortly before last season's NCAA Tournament, is a consensus All-America candidate and a potential player of the year.

"The way he practiced ... was indicative that he is ready to have a great year for us," coach Lute Olson said after a recent practice.

"Certainly when you have a center of his capabilities, that's a big, big plus," said ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, adding that if he knew Woods would play 30-35 minutes a game, he would have made Arizona No. 1 in his magazine instead of Duke. "When you have somebody with his agility and mobility, that gives you that winner's edge."

Most important to Woods, the team captain, is that he is not a one-man show.

He is surrounded by junior forwards Michael Wright and Richard Jefferson, and sophomore guards Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas, all touted as future NBA first-round draft picks. Plus, unlike last season, the Wildcats have quality reserves, such as senior forwards Eugene Edgerson and Justin Wessell, sophomore forward Luke Walton and senior guard Lamont Frazier.

"This team probably has fewer question marks than any team we've had," said Olson, who has guided three Arizona teams to the Final Four in his 17 years in Tucson.

So the Wildcats' success -- or failure -- doesn't rest squarely on Woods' shoulders.

He has been there, done that.

With little joy.

The 7-foot-1, 245-pound Woods began his collegiate career at Wake Forest, teaming with all-everything star Tim Duncan as a freshman and then being anointed the next Duncan. Woods struggled as a sophomore and transferred to Arizona, a program with a long history of accepting and cultivating refugees.

"He's been able to be his own man here," Arizona associate head coach Jim Rosborough said. "He could come in and be one of the kids, both on and off the floor."

Woods always has liked to blend in, something a player of his skill and size rarely can do.

"I think Loren is helped by the fact that he plays for a great coach and has great talent around him," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said. "I think defensively he has a chance to affect the game and his opponents as much as any center in this country. Offensively, he's blessed in that he's not going to be asked to score a ton of points. I think he could, but he's got such good balance around him, that's not what he's going to be asked to do first."

Though Woods freely admits he is lucky to be on this Arizona team, he doesn't shy from the great expectations heaped upon him. He aims high for himself. But he said he can empathize with Shaquille O'Neal, who until he won an NBA championship last season had to bear criticism that he had failed to live up to his potential.

"For me, basketball will never be a win-win unless I just dominate every single game, win every single game, win the national championship this year and then retire after winning 10 NBA championships," Woods said. "That's just how it's going to be for me. I've figured that out."

Finally.

For a time -- his two years at Wake Forest -- he said he tried his best to be "somebody else" and ended up feeling like a "misfit." At Arizona, he realized he could be himself.

It wasn't a coincidence he had a breakout season as a redshirt junior. Woods averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks. He had 14 blocks against Oregon on Feb. 3, tying the NCAA game record shared by Navy's David Robinson, Brigham Young's Shawn Bradley and Alabama's Roy Rogers.

"We geared everything around him," Rosborough said. "We could get after people (on the perimeter) because Loren was always back there. He set the tone for us defensively."

Olson's teams historically have relied on their guard and wing players -- Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves, Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson and Jason Terry -- to reach the Final Four. Rosborough said you would have to go back to Brian Williams in the early 1990s to find an Arizona team with such a dominating center -- and inconsistency checkered Williams' career, in college and the NBA.

"I finally came into my own, and I got hurt," Woods said. "But people were saying I was sitting out so I could save my body for the NBA. It was just crazy. I played when I was hurt, and I could barely walk after games."

Woods, who did consider bolting, then contracted Valley Fever, which worsened the injury and led to a weakening of the bone. He missed the last eight games of the season, including a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to eventual Final Four participant Wisconsin. In April, Woods needed two operations to insert four screws and a plate into his back to stabilize the vertebrae. The first part of his rehabilitation consisted of little more than walking and doing a few situps and bench presses. "I don't even like to think about it," he said, laughing gently. Woods was cleared to start running in early July, and he began a strenuous workout schedule, lifting weights to add muscle to his lean frame and playing to regain his conditioning.

"He worked very hard to get back," Gardner said. "He's a lot stronger right now."

And ready for fun.

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