Gimino: Cats back in the Chaseby Anthony Gimino on Jun. 17, 2008, under Sports
Budinger’s return will put UA in Pac-10 race
The Arizona basketball team is back in the Pac-10 race. A year after finishing in seventh place, two years after finishing four games behind UCLA and three years after finishing three games behind the Bruins, the Wildcats should be climbing back toward the top of the mountain.
Chase Budinger’s decision Monday to withdraw from the NBA draft certainly was a personal decision – he can improve his skills, his draft status and his wallet by waiting – but he also became a hero of the whole program, which absolutely has needed this piece of news.
How good can the Wildcats be with the 6-foot-7 forward back for his junior season?
“If Chase is back,” coach Lute Olson said recently, “I think it would put us in a position to challenge anybody.”
Well, maybe not anybody. North Carolina got even better news than Arizona on Monday with the announced return of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, to go along with Tyler Hansbrough, who will be a 12th-year senior or something like that.
But a year after Olson, on medical leave, sat out the toughest and deepest Pac-10 in history, the Cats definitely have the players to challenge anybody in the conference.
That’s true for no other reason than this: The Pac-10, which had a case as the strongest league in the nation last season, won’t be nearly as good.
Stanford, Washington State, Cal, Oregon and USC lost key personnel in multiple numbers. None of those teams can immediately fill those vacancies to satisfaction.
Washington, with the return of forward Jon Brockman and other experienced players, could be ready for a return to the top half of the league, even if the Huskies aren’t anyone’s idea of a primo contender.
Oregon State, winless in conference play last season, won’t be appreciably better.
That leaves UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona.
It still starts with the Bruins, although they lost a trio of underclassmen to the draft – Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
The Bruins have speedy point guard Darren Collison and Josh Shipp as fine starting points. They will find new scoring from the league’s best recruiting class, which will make UCLA especially potent on the perimeter.
UCLA, though, won’t be a lock for a fourth consecutive appearance in the Final Four and shouldn’t be able to run away from the rest of the conference.
Arizona State returns its top seven scorers, led by James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph. The Sun Devils will be hungry, too, after missing out on the NCAA tournament with a 9-9 league record.
And then there is Arizona.
The dust is beginning to settle from last season’s tornado of trouble, and the picture that is emerging is certainly happier than it could have been.
Jerryd Bayless left for the NBA draft, but that was expected. More troubling was that signed recruit Emmanuel Negedu, disconcerted with the upheaval on the coaching staff, asked out of his letter-of-intent.
But Jamelle Horne and Nic Wise came back after considering, to some degree, decisions to transfer. Now, Budinger is coming back, too.
All in all, UA has made out pretty well in the transaction department, including the hiring of three new assistants with appropriate experience and professionalism.
Full optimism requires a couple of assumptions – that Olson’s health problems are truly behind him and that all-everything freshman guard Brandon Jennings gets a qualifying SAT score – but it’s not as if season-ticket holders suddenly have to opt out and find something else to do on Thursday and Saturday nights.
Arizona should field a lineup with three first-round draft picks for 2009 – Jennings, Budinger and Hill. Not even UCLA might be able to claim that.
With Jennings and Wise in the backcourt, Budinger at small forward, and Hill at a post position along with somebody (freshman center Jeff Withey, Horne, senior Fendi Onobun), the Wildcats’ starting five won’t take a backseat to many teams.
Depth will be questionable, like last season. Injuries, even short-term ones, could be devastating. But it’s not as if UA starters are unacquainted with the concept of playing heavy minutes.
Budinger arrived at Arizona probably thinking he was going to be a one-and-done player, so it surely takes a bit of humility to come back for a third season. But he’s no dummy either. He made the right move.
If he had gone pro now, he wouldn’t have been able to contribute much in his rookie season. He needs to improve defensively, be more aggressive, have a tougher mind-set.
He can work on all those things at Arizona – improving his sophomore averages of 17.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. He can make himself a top 10 pick next year, when the draft class projects to be much weaker.
For as much as he should be able to help himself, he is helping the program more.
Olson now has a chance to have a heck of a comeback season.