After a year with more drama and plot twists than Season 4 of 24, the Arizona Wildcats have some of the hallmarks of great teams of the past. Lute Olson back in the reins, a highly ranked recruiting class and key players returning from last year's team.
At the same time though, the team is a complete mystery to me, and at one point I considered canceling my season tickets. The Kevin O'Neill era ended as abruptly as it began, and I'm still as stunned about how wrong I was about him and how little the media covered his control freak tendencies and anger issues until the very end.
Looking back the U of A, and Jim Livengood in particular, handled it as badly as you could possibly handle it.
First having Lute's bizarre decision to leave the team for "personal reasons" linger over the team as we kept waiting for Lute to come back as we kept hearing stories about him calling players, showing up to practice and
Then the decision to publicly declare O'Neill as Olson's successor after a very average non-conference start. Lute announcing he would be back next year, and finally, Livengood declaring that they were just kidding about O'Neill being in charge when Lute retire. This eventually led to O'Neill's "firing" where he was moved from assistant coach to program fundraiser and then Memphis Grizzlies assistant.
What kind of message does that send to anyone wanting to coach at U of A when Lute finally retires? Basically we'll promise you what it takes to keep you happy, but if Lute gets tired of you one day you need to pack your bags.
Lute isn't the same Lute who got us to four Final Fours and two title games. He caters way too much to his stars, doesn't run plays and really doesn't pay much attention to defense and goes through assistant coaches like Kirstie Alley goes through pints of Ben and Jerry's.
The only reason I can see for him wanting to stay is to get to 800 wins. The athletic department has basically given Lute carte blanche and he doesn't have what it takes except in the recruiting department.
But anyways enough about the coaches, let's get to this year's team after an offseason that had the potential to completely destroy this year's team.
The nucleus remains somewhat intact and has the potential to be better than last year's team. The loss of Bayless is huge as he could dominate games like no one else on the team and could get to the line at will. Brandon Jennings will replace him though, and he could be even better as he is the first true point guard we've had since Jason Gardner.
Nic Wise should man the other guard spot, giving the team two great passers who can break just about anyone off the dribble.
Budinger's announcement last week completely changed the team dynamics. He is a streaky shooter, but has the athleticism to get to the rim when he wants to. He came back to play in Lute's offense and improve his falling draft stock, so he should be this team's leader offensively (news flash to Pac-10 forwards, Chase couldn't guard a seventh grader if you set any kind of pick for him).
Another big returner for the Cats is Jordan Hill who looked dominant at times when he avoided foul trouble and had some rest on the bench. If he continues to improve he could be the best big man in the Pac-10 now that Kevin Love and the Lopez twins are gone.
There will be some competition for the last starting spot and it will probably be a revolving door like last year, depending on the matchups. If they want to go big it'll probably be stud freshmen Jeff Withey who is great defensively, otherwise I'd say Jamelle Horne(if he learned out to shoot this offseason) or Zane Johnson(if he learned how to play D) will probably get the nod against smaller teams.
The reserves are pretty solid with Fendi Onobun (who plays solid D but picks up a lot of fouls) and the new guys Fogg and Lavender. They should be about eight or nine deep, and that should limit the strain on the starters who got way overworked last year and it showed in a big way at the end of the season.
Overall the team should be deeper this year and has much more experience than last year's team. They could be near the top of the Pac-10 or just ahead of Oregon State and I wouldn't really be surprised either way. I haven't looked in depth at the other rosters in the Pac-10 so this pick is waaaay out on a limb.
3rd in the Pac-10 and Sweet 16 in the NCAA.