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'Cats, 'Dogs and subplots

When tiny Gonzaga meets mighty Arizona this afternoon, expect an intense, hard-fought contest spiced by some individual grudge matches.

Arizona's Lute Olson is wary about playing the Bulldogs, even though the Wildcats beat them 101-87 in their only head-to-head meeting in 2000 in Tucson. Wildcat star Salim Stoudamire wants to exact some revenge on Gonzaga's Blake Stepp, who beat out Stoudamire for Oregon's player of the year when they were both in high school.

"I want my redemption," Stoudamire said Friday afternoon at the University of Utah, where the second-round game will be played. "I think I deserved it, so I've got something to prove."

Stepp, on the other hand, believes it's the Bulldogs who have something to prove. "Salim and Jason Gardner are two of the best guards in the nation in terms of shooting the ball and running the team the way it's supposed to be run. It will be a good challenge for us to try to shut them down and not allow them to get open looks."

As for Gonzaga being the decided underdogs, Stepp said, "We're not scared of anybody in the country anymore. We've played a lot of good teams in this preseason especially. We played Kentucky pretty tough . . . We know we can compete and play well against top-caliber teams like Arizona."

His coach, Mark Few, said, "Our goal is to counter Arizona's pressure — as we did Thursday against Cincinnati — and stay aggressive on offense and stay in rhythm."

Olson's team, on the other hand, is feeling the pressure too. "Everybody's nervous," he said Friday, "and maybe the top seeds are more nervous in these early games because so much is expected from them.

"We don't take anyone lightly, but our seniors know what it takes to win at this level and they've done a great job keeping the younger players focused on the task at hand.

"Stepp is a very difficult guy to guard because of his size and quickness," Olson continued. "He's very strong off the dribble and will pose a serious challenge for Salim. But he's been voted by his teammates the top defender of this team for the past two years. He loves the challenge."

Long-time observers of the Arizona program know they are susceptible to inside pressure, so watch for the 'Zags to pound it inside a lot against the 'Cats. And if the middle is blocked, watch for the perimeter players to knock down shots. Both teams have top-flight talent at those positions. The game may come down to which team wants it more: Arizona, and a return to the national title game or Gonzaga trying to mess up the West bracket.


E-MAIL: jringwood@desnews.com