When the Cal men’s basketball team tips off the Pac-10 season against Arizona Thursday evening, they face a team that has seen more trouble than anyone could have imagined.
The Wildcats are a supremely talented squad, favored by many experts to win the national championship. There was even talk of an undefeated season. But while the title may still be in the cards, the Wildcats have already lost four games and fallen to No. 15 in the polls, and two of their starters, center Loren Woods and wingman Richard Jefferson, have served suspensions for receiving improper gifts.
The losses are bad, but easily take a back seat to the emotions of losing Bobbi Olson, head coach Lute Olson’s wife and a big part of the Arizona program for the past 18 years. Olson took a leave of absence Saturday to care for his wife, who died Monday of ovarian cancer.
“She was like a second mom to a lot of the players over the years,” said Josh Pastner, an Arizona assistant coach and former Wildcat player. “She was instrumental in a lot of guys coming here.”
Olson remains on leave, and no return date has been announced. The normally stoic coach broke down in tears when he told the players he would be leaving to care for his wife of 47 years, and several players expressed their grief by writing Bobbi Olson’s name on their equipment for Tuesday’s game against Mississippi State.
“It’s an emotional time,” Woods said. “But it’s important we remain strong and play our best for Coach Olson.”
The Wildcats’ play has been inconsistent this year, to say the least. With Woods missing the first six games and Jefferson missing one game, Arizona has only had its full starting lineup together for four games. They lost to Connecticut on a controversial call. They have been criticized for not playing hard, playing sloppily and trying to cruise by on talent alone. But with the emotional roller-coaster the team has been on, one suspects that fans haven’t seen the real Wildcats play yet.
“I don’t think you can ever measure how a team is going to react to all of it,” said Cal coach Ben Braun. “We’re not machines. We're all still human beings and your emotional welfare and well being does affect your approach to things. It’s hard to imagine what that coaching staff and their players are going through.”
But despite the emotional trauma and inconsistent play, the Wildcats remain many experts’ pick to win the Pac-10, including their biggest challenger for the title.
“Arizona is still perhaps the most talented team in the country,” said Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, whose team is undefeated and No. 2 in the country. “I still think it should be the (Pac-10) favorite. They have had some circumstances recently that put them in a bad spot. But it’s still the team to beat and we have to approach it that way. Anyone who doesn't is not really looking at things very well.”