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Rivera: Cats made mountain out of Hill

Lucky Lute got player willing to build skills

University of Arizona center Jordan Hill dunks the ball against Cleveland State on Sunday in Miami during the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Arizona won the game 71-57.

University of Arizona center Jordan Hill dunks the ball against Cleveland State on Sunday in Miami during the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Arizona won the game 71-57.

INDIANAPOLIS – Talk about potential. Arizona big man Jordan Hill is realizing it.

Every day. Every moment.

“If he improves as much as he has this year, I think his upside is really great,” said Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell, whose team faces Louisville on Friday in the Sweet 16. “Physically, I don’t even think he’s tapped it. He hasn’t physically matured yet as a young man.”

He’s getting there. Those who have followed his career and those who brought him to Arizona see it.

“He was a tremendous find,” said former Arizona coach Lute Olson, the Hall of Fame coach who retired in October but was instrumental in evaluating and then signing the raw-but-talented power forward out of Atlanta via The Patterson School in North Carolina.

The 6-foot-10 Hill ultimately may have been Olson’s most unbelievable find when it comes to project-to-possible pro. Gilbert Arenas went unnoticed, but had the look and feel of future star. One knew he’d be good. And former UA star Channing Frye was a higher-than-100 recruit, but turned himself into a top 10 NBA pick.

It’s a testament to hard work. It’s a testament to good coaching. It’s a testament to talent evaluation.

And for UA’s sake, “It was a stroke of luck, really,” Olson said.

It started in Houston at the annual Kingwood Classic basketball tournament, an AAU event run by Hal Pastner, the father of former UA assistant coach Josh Pastner.

Olson went to watch high school player DeAndre Jordan, who later went to Texas A&M, but was drawn to the lanky-but-athletic Hill. It took all of two minutes and Olson made a call to Pastner, who was at another gym watching other players.

“I asked him, “who is this Jordan Hill?’ ”

Pastner had no idea.

“You’d better get over here in a hurry,” Olson told him.

A week later, Hill was visiting UA and committing to the program. He became part of the recruiting class that featured Chase Budinger and Nic Wise.

“He didn’t know much about the game, but you could tell he could play,” Olson said. “He’d run and jump with so much athleticism. He’d block shots with great timing.”

Four years later, Hill is doing those things as an Arizona junior, helping the Wildcats beat Utah and Cleveland State to advance to the Sweet 16.

Hill credits Olson and his other coaches for helping him develop, but he also knows . . .

“It’s taken a lot of work from me,” Hill said. “I just kept proving myself and kept working hard. I went on the court and had to prove everything I did. It’s helped me become the person I am now.”

Hill remains humble, part of his appeal.

“I always thought I was a pretty good player, that I was a raw player but had potential,” he said. “I thought it would come out of me once I got to Arizona. It had the coaching and it was a big program. I just had to keep working hard.”

He has. And now, he’s become Mr. Upside. It comes with the realization he started playing basketball late in his teens.

Patience has paid off. Two seasons ago he averaged just 14 minutes and 4.7 points a game. Last season, he averaged 12.3 points and 8.3 rebounds a game. After averaging 18.4 points and 11 rebounds this season, he became the first UA player since Larry Demic in 1978-79 (19.3, 10.3) to average a double-double for the season.

“In my mind I thought I should be (a double-double guy),” he said. “I know how athletic I am.”

Gonzaga coach Mark Few found out firsthand.

In Arizona’s 69-64 win over the Zags in December, Few said Hill compared favorably with Oklahoma standout Blake Griffin and North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough after Hill scored 22 points and pulled down six rebounds.

“I didn’t hear that,” Hill said of Few’s comments nearly five months ago. “Feels good.”

Since then, he’s played even better, finishing with 23 double-doubles for the season.

Many have praised his efforts. He’s been named a finalist for the John R. Wooden Award, given to the nation’s best player. He’s been named a third-team All-America by The Sporting News.

His future is bright, although Hill says he’s unsure whether he’ll declare early for the NBA draft.

But his tone at this week’s news conference at McKale Center, where he opened up more than usual, suggested he would leave after the season.

At least two mock drafts list him as a lottery selection – among the top 14 picks. Hoopshype.com and NBAdraft.net have him going at No. 3.

Chris Monter said given the state of this year’s draft – weak and void of older stars – Hill could go high, particularly if he continues to play well in the NCAA Tournament. To this point, he’s been good.

“He’ll play a good Louisville team, so that’s going to be a good match up for him,” said Monter, of the Monter NBA Draft News.

Monter declined to project Hill at any number, saying he’ll do so later in the summer when teams eventually find their slots after the lottery selection. Hill has the potential to be “a high first-round pick,” Monter said.

There’s that word again – potential, which seems to be the definition of Hill.

Steve Rivera’s e-mail: srivera@tucsoncitizen.com


No. 1 Louisville (30-5) vs. No. 12 Arizona (21-13)

When: 4:07 p.m. Friday What: Sweet 16 game Where: Indianapolis TV: CBS Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM Line: Louisville by 9

HILL’S 2008-09 STATS

Overall NCAAs

18.4 Points per game 16.5

11.0 Rebounds per game 11.0

33 Games 2

54.5 Field goal % 50.0

65.0 Free throw % 64.3

58 Blocks 1

29 Steals 3

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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