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Arizona State continues to bedevil Budinger in important games

Citizen Staff Writer



LOS ANGELES – Chase Budinger arrived as the golden boy of Arizona hoops, anointed, unfairly it seems now, as Lute Olson’s biggest recruit ever.

So said Olson at the time.

There was a time late in Budinger’s freshman season when he stood in McKale Center answering questions about his NBA future. The 6-foot-7 forward said he was coming back for his sophomore season because he wanted to be the best player in college basketball.

Now a junior, it all might end with a whimper.

Arizona, needing a victory as if its streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances depended on it, came up short – well short – against Arizona State in the Pacific-10 Conference Tournament quarterfinals at Staples Center on Thursday.

The Wildcats lost 68-56 and it’s easiest to point the finger of blame at Budinger, the only one of the Big Three who didn’t get his points.

Jordan Hill scored 20 and pulled down 13 rebounds. Nic Wise found creative ways to score 18.

Budinger had eight.

“Nothing was falling, inside or out,” Budinger said. “Credit to ASU.”

Yeah, credit to ASU times five.

The Sun Devils, to the great and growing pain of Arizona fans, have won five in a row in the series in the past two seasons, and here is how Budinger shot in those five games, starting with the most recent:

• 3 of 15

• 5 of 16

• 4 of 8

• 1 of 12

• 4 of 13

That’s 17 of 64 (26.6 percent). That includes making just 5 of 33 3-point attempts (15.2 percent).

“They just try to find me more, never let me get a wide-open look,” Budinger said of ASU’s zone defense.

Said interim coach Russ Pennell: “I think they target him. They want to make sure they make his life miserable, and they try to get into him. But for the most part tonight, the shots he took were really good. They just didn’t fall.”

They didn’t fall, and Budinger faded away. He didn’t consistently attack the basket, as was his style in the second half of the conference season.

He attempted just one free throw. He managed a mere three rebounds in 39 minutes.

A day earlier, he had been selected, in an Oakland Tribune survey of conference writers, the most overrated player in the Pac-10 for the second consecutive season. He didn’t do anything to dispel that notion – correct or not – on Thursday.

It will not be Exhibit A in Budinger’s rebuttal to those who say he doesn’t play with passion.

“The unfortunate thing for Chase is he’s just always had such a big reputation to live up to,” Pennell said.

“When that is above you every single day, that’s difficult. Yet, I think he is an outstanding player who has continued to get better, and he has room to keep getting better.”

It is too late, however, for Budinger to be considered an ASU killer . . . unless, of course, he comes back for his senior season.

That doesn’t appear likely, but who would have thought that North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough or Washington’s Jon Brockman, among others, would make it to their senior seasons?

Budinger deflected the question on his future after the game, because, well, um, there might be NIT games (oh, joy) yet to come.

“I’m letting this season play out first and then make a decision,” he said.

Budinger declared for the draft after last season, but withdrew his name after attending several tryouts and failing to elevate his likely draft status to the top 20.

“I personally think he has had a better junior year than sophomore year,” Pennell said. “I have talked to some authorities in the level above us, and they feel the same way.

“They think he is a more well-rounded player. He has shown the ability of handling the basketball and of passing the basketball, and they think he has gotten stronger. They like his effort on defense better. They think he has matured.”

Budinger has been a stand-up guy this season, the team’s unofficial player spokesman. Pennell credits Budinger for leadership on and off the court, while playing for his third coach in three seasons.

“He is going to have a difficult decision to make from this standpoint, and it’s very simple: Does he want to play for another coach and go through that again?” Pennell said.

“Would another year help him? Yeah, probably. But I could also see him going (to the NBA after the season) and being successful.”

But if he goes, he’ll leave with some holes in his college résumé, especially against ASU.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com

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