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Wildcats playing with house money

Citizen Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – The message has been the same from the start, even before Lute Olson retired: Hey, guys, this is your team.

Yeah, you, the players. Your team. Take ownership. Speak up. Have your say.

“They looked around like, ‘Is this a trick question?’ ” said Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell.

It wasn’t.

“We were thrown off, naturally, that the coaching staff actually cared what we thought,” sophomore forward Jamelle Horne said Thursday after Arizona’s shoot-around at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“They told us we have all the power.”

And it didn’t go to their heads.

The team’s two seniors – Fendi Onobun and David Bagga – each say this is the closest Arizona team of the past four seasons.

“By far,” Bagga said.

OK, the bar wasn’t set ridiculously high because the Wildcats have been known for their dysfunction, but the trust that flowed from coaches to players, and then player to player, has provided the kind of inspiration that would make Tony Robbins proud.

Will any of that buy Arizona a basket against Louisville’s pressure defense Friday night in a Sweet 16 game?

You know, maybe – in an indirect way – it can.

All that team togetherness, combined with an NCAA Tournament invitation that came as a surprise – that’s coming right from the players’ mouths – has led to a nothing-to-lose, what-me-worry attitude not seen in recent Arizona teams.

Hey, it’s a start.

“Last year, it was tight. Real tight,” Onobun said, describing the locker room atmosphere before Arizona’s first-round loss to West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. “Everything was just really weird.”

The only thing weird about this season was that it really wasn’t weird – at least not after Russ Pennell was promoted to interim head coach after Olson’s retirement.

There hasn’t been much in-season drama, save for multiple suspensions of freshman guard Garland Judkins. We’ve seen worse. Lots worse.

In the meantime, the coaches pried leadership out of Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Nic Wise, juniors who often haven’t been comfortable speaking up, being the center of attention.

Budinger emerged from his shell the most, taking on the bulk of media responsibilities.

“As a staff, we’ve been trying to empower him,” Pennell said.

“You can put a guy on the spot. You can be done with practice and get in the huddle and say, ‘Chase, what do you have for us?’

“He better come with something or they are going to make fun of him in the locker room. You kind of sometimes put him on the spot like that, but he’s stepped forward.”

If Budinger has a message for the team before Friday’s game, it should be this: stay loose.

Arizona is playing with house money, and it knows it. The Wildcats weren’t supposed to be here. Louisville was. Let the Cardinals worry.

Nothing to lose.

And if this is the day the Arizona basketball season ends, it will end in grand style. In a football stadium on a raised court. In a great basketball city. After a surprising run to the Sweet 16.

It could be a fitting conclusion to 25 consecutive seasons in the NCAA Tournament.

These Wildcats, no matter the outcome, have secured a place in fans’ hearts, first by deciding to pull together and then by going on a Sweet 16 run.

Face it, though. Arizona played a couple of teams it could handle, Utah and Cleveland State, in their first two NCAA Tournament games. UA, at its best, was better than those two opponents at their best.

Thing is, if the Wildcats play their best against Louisville, they could still lose. But at least they would have a chance.

What more can you ask for?

Bagga took a look around the locker room after Thursday’s practice and remarked about the loose atmosphere. He then mentioned becoming roommates with Hill several weeks ago.

“We had an hour-and-a-half talk on Saturday night. Just about life, about his family, about my family, about how he has grown up as a person,” Bagga said.

“Neither of us wanted to go to sleep because we just wanted to continue talking. Just the camaraderie of this group is so special. When we all look back at this, that is what everyone is going to remember about this team.”

Their team. The one they took ownership of a long time ago.

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

Cats playing with house money in Sweet 16


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