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December 19, 2012
Just how good are these Wildcats and can this team make a run to the Final Four?
Well, A.J. Bramlett would know a thing or two about that. As a sophomore, Bramlett helped the program win its lone national championship in 1997.
But he also will point out that the NCAA tournament is a "crapshoot" and that timing had plenty to do with the success. That season, the Wildcats became the first team to defeat three No. 1 seeds en route to the title.
"You have to have the right chemistry at the right time," Bramlett told GOAZCATS.com. "You have to have a little bit of luck. You have to have determination - all that mixed into one. We had that for our six-game run - and belief. We truly believed that we were going to win every single game of that tournament."
Although it is early and the Pac-12 Conference slate awaits, Bramlett said he sees similarities in this year's team and the makings of a contender.
For starters, head coach Sean Miller brought in the nation's No. 3-ranked recruiting class, which includes big men Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski - all of whom are key contributors. In addition, sophomore Nick Johnson has emerged as arguably the team's best player through the first nine games.
During the 1996-97 season, Hall of Fame head coach Lute Olson had his share of young contributors in true freshman point guard Mike Bibby and sophomores Bramlett and Jason Terry.
So, Bramlett doesn't want to hear about how young the Wildcats are.
"We were young; we had no seniors," Bramlett said. "So when people say, 'These guys are young. They can't do it.' I don't ever buy into that. We had no seniors. We had Bibby, Eugene Edgerson. Myself and JT were sophomores. Mike (Dickerson) and Miles (Simon) were the juniors and they pretty much acted as our seniors. But we were young. We didn't have any experience, really, and we were able to pull it together. I think it's more the coaching and the group of guys that you have.
"I've seen them play well together and they share the ball. They play like an older team so that's what you want to see. They've done a great job so far this year."
Both teams certainly have leadership traits in common, too.
During the run, Simon was the face of the program. But he also had Bibby to help navigate the ship. This year, Johnson and three seniors - Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons - are leading the charge.
It's the addition of Lyons, the transfer from Xavier, that has been "the key," Bramlett said.
"He's done an incredible job so far this season, just giving the 'Cats some calm and some senior leadership," Bramlett added. "That really offsets the freshmen guys and makes them feel more comfortable and allows them to develop earlier.
"All those guys have contributed at some point at a high level during the season. I think you'll just continue to see them grow."
Bramlett has watched the majority of the team's games this year. Since the beginning of the season, his opinion has only been strengthened with the team's "all-out" defensive effort and unselfish play.
"That's especially hard to find, especially in today's crop of players," Bramlett said. "You find a lot of selfish guys, a lot of guys that are 'me-first.' To have such a big group of freshmen come in that have jumped in right away and not worried about their points or their assists or their rebounds, and just fit seamlessly into what coach Miller is trying to do there, it's good to see and it bodes well for the future of the program."