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Thursday, February 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Bud Withers
So what's next? Who's going to one-up Christian Drejer, who bolted Florida at the height of its stretch run to the NCAA tournament for a professional contract in Barcelona?
Billy Donovan thinks he knows.
"You're in the middle of the season," the Florida coach said this week. "A kid is playing phenomenally. Somebody gets to him and says, 'Listen, all you're going to do is hurt yourself. Nothing good can come of you playing.' "
And soon, maybe about the first of February, the agent signs the player, and he's off to work with a personal trainer to get ready for the NBA draft.
"I could see that happening," Arizona coach Lute Olson said.
It occurred again this week, albeit with less splash than Drejer. Maris Laksa, a Latvian-born forward who had helped Providence in the past but rode the bench most of this season, left to sign a contract in Slovenia.
It used to be so easy. Olson, whose team hosts Washington tonight, had guys like Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott, and he could count on them for four years. Now the business of managing a college roster is as volatile as Rasheed Wallace.
Maybe nobody knows it like Olson, whose team is 17-7, 9-6 in the Pac-10 and 5½ games behind Stanford. Arizona hasn't finished six games behind anybody since Olson's first year, 1984.
"We're very, very inconsistent," he said, frustrated after a loss at Oregon State last week. "We just can't get it together. We have guys who take nights off."
You get the sense that in the brassy new era of 19-year-old NBA players, Arizona hasn't discovered equilibrium. It's either too thin or too deep, or perceived so deep that players leave.
Olson recalled the 2001 championship-game loss to Duke.
"We had one senior (starter)," he said. "And we ended up with one guy back."
Michael Wright wasn't really into books and came out a year early. Richard Jefferson did likewise. Gilbert Arenas forsook his final two years.
Hamstrung by the controversial 5/8 scholarship restriction, Arizona was caught thin in 2002, but it did well in making the Sweet 16. Last season, buttressed by another year's recruiting, it had depth galore so much that Will Bynum transferred to Georgia Tech and Dennis Latimore opted out for Notre Dame.
Those departures trimmed the margin for error. That cushion disappeared altogether when the Wildcats lost three more players top-10 signee Ndudi Ebi of Houston unexpectedly bailed and bolted for the NBA; redshirt Chris Dunn flunked out; and Isaiah Fox injured a knee in December.
What's left is a shell of what Arizona might have been.
"We would have been very good," Olson said. "Dunn had a great redshirt year. Ebi had unbelievable quickness; he was an unbelievable jumper."
But unbelievably, he up and left, and is now on the Minnesota Timberwolves' bench.
"He told us he was going to be here at least three years," said Olson, who laments another rules impediment: "The agent can be there with a kid the whole year, calling him 100 times a week. We can call once a week."
The contrast is made with undefeated Stanford, which is flourishing with players like Chris Hernandez, Matt Lottich and Rob Little. In the past six seasons, the Cardinal has three outright league titles, Arizona one.
There are those who believe Arizona has taken too many stars and not enough glue guys.
"Yeah, right," Olson said sarcastically. "We beat Cal State-Northridge for Gilbert Arenas. We didn't think he was going to develop that quickly. All you can do is pick good kids and work with them, and if they go, they go."
In bygone years, Olson wouldn't recruit the same position in back-to-back years, so there would be a senior and a sophomore at a particular spot. There was a flow.
Now, he said, "We have no idea with our team. An agent could get to somebody on our team."
He pondered his newest player, Serbian Ivan Radenovic, who arrived only in December after choosing Arizona on the advice of trusted friends.
"I wouldn't ever expect it to happen with Ivan," Olson said. "But yet, Billy Donovan probably didn't feel it would happen with Drejer."
Plans for a new arena are on hold at Oregon, but USC is full speed ahead on the 10,000-seat Galen Center, on which Trojans officials hope to break ground in the fall near the Jefferson-Figueroa campus intersection.
With some $35 million in hand from Louis and Helene Galen he's a 1951 USC law school grad the Trojans are halfway to the $70 million threshold required to begin the project.
It can't come too soon for the Trojans, who play in one of the dingiest buildings in the country, the Sports Arena. Derrick Craven told the L.A. Daily News, "Coach (Henry) Bibby calls us the Globetrotters. We don't have a home."
And what's more ...
Maybe Jay John will be the coach who ends Oregon State's years of woe. Junior forward David Lucas has scored 20 points in 10 of his past 12 games and should be on the all-league team, guard Lamar Hurd hasn't made a turnover in his past 68 minutes, and the Beavers have won three games in February for the first time since amazingly 1992.
At least eight NBA scouts saw Stanford's Josh Childress score 36 points at USC. Childress, a junior, might take a hard look at the NBA.
Arizona State shot 25 free throws in the last 2:57 of its victory at Oregon.
How times change: Stanford has won seven straight at UCLA, an opponent record.
Cal freshman Leon Powe has been pressing offensively, a key factor in the Bears' recent slump. He hasn't had a field goal in the first half of four straight games.
It's doubtful that Stanford's Justin Davis (knee) will be ready to return next weekend in Washington. But Matt Haryasz (ankle) is back and should be at full strength.
Roydell Smiley of USC and Garfield High School is practicing again after redshirting this season because of lingering effects of a broken leg late last season.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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