Will Cats rise or fall back in Pac-10 pack?
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Now, the fun begins. All that’s at stake is the future of the Arizona basketball program.
It could go anywhere from here. Back to the big time. Off to Nowhereville.
The 2007-08 season was awwwk-ward. Coach Lute Olson was on a leave of absence, in seclusion. The players had to deal with Kevin O’Neill – a step-coach whose style, in philosophy and personality, was 180 degrees from the stately Olson.
The players didn’t sign on for this. Hey, neither did O’Neill.
“It was something that was sprung upon us this year,” sophomore forward Chase Budinger said after Thursday night’s 75-65 first-round loss to West Virginia at the Verizon Center.
“I came here to play for coach Olson.”
And yet Olson’s return solves . . . just about nothing.
At this perilous point, it is going to take more than Olson’s sideline presence to revive a program that has slipped to the middle of the Pac-10 and has suffered three first-round NCAA losses in the past five years.
Everybody needs to make the right decision. Translation: Olson needs the players.
Freshman Jerryd Bayless and sophomores Budinger and Jordan Hill are all in some process of determining whether to jump to the NBA.
All should come back – if not for the sake of the program, or for Lute’s, then for purely selfish reasons.
None is nearly as good as he could be.
Exhibit A: The West Virginia game.
Bayless has to work on his point guard skills, dribbling with his left hand, battling tough defense and shaking off frustration over the officiating.
There was a point late in the West Virginia game when he was pained by a no-call on a drive. He didn’t hustle back on defense. The guy he was guarding, Da’Sean Butler, grabbed the missed shot, raced down court, cut to the basket and beat Bayless for a layup.
In a perfect world, Bayless wouldn’t have been guarding Butler at all. It was Budinger’s inability to guard Butler in the first half that led O’Neill to make a defensive switch.
Budinger scored a game-high 23 points, but he gave up at least that many on the other end.
Either he was unable to challenge 3-point shooters or stop drives to the basket. Late in the game, Wellington Smith curled around Budinger for a layup and a foul – another key sequence.
Then there’s Hill. He picked up three fouls in 2 minutes, 18 seconds early in the second half, showing yet again he’s not yet in control of his significant raw skills.
His hands, face-up game and jump shot all need work if he hopes to play power forward in the NBA.
Another thing for all three to consider: This will be an extremely deep draft pool, probably not as much in 2009.
“It’s not about them being ready just to be in the NBA, it’s about them being ready to play,” said senior Jawann McClellan, the wise old man of the team.
“If you’re not ready to play, you shouldn’t go. And, mentally, if you’re not ready for it . . . if you’re not playing, that can take a toll on you.
“It’s a business at the next level.”
Olson has to make some tough calls, too.
He has to understand that his recruiting ability has been compromised by his age and the questions about his medical condition, which he is unlikely to ever disclose.
More than O’Neill needs Arizona, Olson needs O’Neill as a strong No. 2 man.
More to the point, because O’Neill’s return is as unlikely as a Tucson snowstorm in July, the 73-year-old coach needs someone like O’Neill.
Olson needs a bad cop to his good cop.
In any case, the coaching succession plan has blown up, which is a shame, because Olson, at this stage, needs a successor.
He says he intends to fulfill his contract, through the 2011 season, which seems ambitious, if only because we haven’t seen how he will handle 2008-09.
My dream scenario:
Olson announces he is rarin’ to go for one more season, giving him the farewell tour he deserves. Bayless and Budinger stay around to play for the Hall of Famer. Hill doesn’t do anything crazy.
Olson decides to add experience to his coaching staff. Miles Simon, who doesn’t have much, needs to learn elsewhere. Olson searches far and wide for a potential successor – a tricky business.
Perhaps someone with a strong Pac-10 résumé who is currently out of work. Know anybody like that?
Imagine: Lute on the sideline, with a veteran staff, using a lineup that could look like this:
Touted recruit Brandon Jennings at point guard, Bayless, Budinger, Hill and 7-foot freshman Jeff Withey at center. Junior guard Nic Wise as perhaps the best sixth man in the conference. Enough bench options in the frontcourt.
That team should be a contender for a strong run in the NCAA Tournament, the program restored with, most important, a plan in place for the future. No more uncertainty.
Olson happily retires as coach emeritus, with a courtside seat and a role as an ambassador for Arizona basketball and all of college basketball. He receives a standing ovation wherever he goes.
Or, if some people make the wrong decisions in the next weeks and months, it could be a disaster that takes UA years to repair.
Think carefully, guys.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
FINAL ’07-’08 STATS
Name PPG RPG APG
Jerryd Bayless 19.7 2.7 4.0
Chase Budinger 17.1 5.4 2.9
Jordan Hill 13.2 7.9 0.8
Nic Wise 9.2 2.3 4.4
Jawann McClellan 8.4 3.6 2.7
Jamelle Horne 3.0 0.3 0.3
Bret Brielmaier 2.7 2.9 0.5
Daniel Dillon 2.0 1.1 1.3
Fendi Onobun 1.7 1.4 0.2
Zane Johnson 0.9 0.6 0.1
Kirk Walters 0.8 1.3 0.0
David Bagga 0.5 0.0 0.0
Mohamed Tangara 0.0 0.2 0.0