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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Revenge still sought against Illinois

    UA guard Jawann McClellan slaps hands with fans after Arizonas 84-72 win over Illinois last season in Phoenix. McClellan still remembers the Wildcats heartbreaking collapse to the Illini in the 2005 Elite Eight that took place on a neutral court in Illinois, just like Saturdays 10 a.m. game will.
    UA guard Jawann McClellan slaps hands with fans after Arizona’s 84-72 win over Illinois last season in Phoenix. McClellan still remembers the Wildcats’ heartbreaking collapse to the Illini in the 2005 Elite Eight that took place on a neutral court in Illinois, just like Saturday’s 10 a.m. game will.

    A constant haunting reminder of the Arizona men’s basketball team’s 2005 Elite Eight collapse to Illinois hangs above guard Jawann McClellan every morning, both in a figurative and literal way.

    “”On my wall, right when I wake up every morning, that’s the last thing my dad gave me, was a picture of me crying on the floor,”” McClellan said. “”Like last year when I was very emotional in that game (against Illinois), we needed that win, and I’m pretty sure there’s no love loss between the two schools.””

    No. 22 Arizona (5-2) travels to Chicago for another battle with Illinois Saturday at 10 a.m. on ESPN, renewing an emotional impact the Fighting Illini (5-2) bring to McClellan.

    This year adds a new twist, as McClellan’s uncle John – a twin of Jawann’s late father who currently lives in Chicago – will see his nephew play for the first time in person when the teams battle in the United Center.

    “”I try not to look at (the photo) every day, but I have no choice when it’s right there,”” McClellan said. “”I just don’t let it happen again. I know what it feels like to lose. … (We just have to) leave everything out there.””

    Renewing the bitter past goes beyond more than just the upperclassmen who played on the 2004-2005 squad.

    Freshman guard Jerryd Bayless watched the tournament game on television as a high school sophomore. Over two years later, the Phoenix native finds himself leading the Wildcats with 19.9 points per game, amidst another season of high hopes of returning to that very same stage.

    “”I know a lot of the guys on the team would like some revenge from that game,”” Bayless said. “”We got them last year as well. It’s a little bit of a rivalry. … Hopefully we come out to win.””

    Arizona’s bitter tournament history with the Big Ten Conference doesn’t need to be traced back to Illinois. As it reflects in the Big Ten’s reputation, Purdue brought a physical team out to hand Arizona a first-round loss in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

    The perfect cure for such defenseless play against a physical Big Ten team comes from the addition of UA interim head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Kevin O’Neill, who finds his fresh approach to stopping explosive offenses improving as the season progresses.

    O’Neill’s philosophy revolves around accountability in his man-to-man system. In order to achieve success, the team must enjoy contact, be in tip-top condition and trust teammates to execute, he said.

    “”Eventually, I want our team to come together and get responsible,”” O’Neill said. “”If you’re in great shape and practice longer and harder than other people in a useful manner, you have a chance to get better.””

    O’Neill cited stronger, more intense defensive play as the Wildcats beat then-No. 9 Texas A&M, 78-67, Sunday in McKale Center. Arizona held the Aggies to 34.5 field-goal shooting in the second half, after adjusting from a first half when the Aggies shot 60 percent from the field.

    Arizona’s two- to three-hour practices paid off in a close and intense game like that, O’Neill said, as his defense thrives on a concentration and intensity over the entire 40 minutes on the court.

    Both Texas A&M and No. 3 Kansas – who Arizona played on Nov. 25 – played very physical defense, said O’Neill, who believes Illinois joins those schools in the upper tier of college basketball’s defensive powerhouses. As the season progresses, O’Neill hopes to see the Wildcats enter that elite group.

    Such heart and relentlessness Arizona demonstrated in the A&M game caught O’Neill’s eye, as he sees a young and unsure team turning into a hard-nosed powerhouse.

    Arizona holds its opponents to 68.3 points per game, with no opponent scoring more than the 76 the Jayhawks did in that overtime decision.

    Arizona’s defense is playing well for 20-30 minutes of the game, O’Neill added, as the young players adjust from playing unchallenging defense in high school to his system, espcially forward Chase Budinger and Bayless.

    “”The last time (Bayless) guarded anyone before he got here, I’d like to see him,”” O’Neill said. “”When you’re a high school player … you naturally don’t become a killer on defense. For those guys it’s been a learning process.””

    Throughout his years of coaching in the NBA and NCAA, O’Neill learned that rankings, statistics and projections are irrelevant in college basketball, and told the team at practice, “”beating the ninth-ranked team doesn’t ensure in any stretch that you’re going to beat Illinois.

    “”Any team in any uniform can beat you.””

    Said Budinger: “”(O’Neill is) definitely drawing our minds that Illinois is a very capable team. We definitely can’t look pass them at all.””

    Budinger enjoys intense crowds on the road, knowing that the game, though it is on a neutral court, will undoubtedly be loud being in the state of Illinois.

    “”I like crowds that are against me,”” he said. “”I like to rise to occasion and put it back in their faces when they’re screaming stuff at me.””

    Said McClellan: “”They’re going to be loud, it’s going to be real loud. There’s no love loss between the two programs.””

    And 1

    Bayless continues to impress O’Neill on the court, leading Arizona in points (19.9 per game), assists (4.9 per game) and minutes (33.6 per game) while scoring in double digits in all seven games.

    O’Neill sees the it factor through his passion and competitiveness and hopes the rest of the team catches the wildfire.

    “”The first time I met Jerryd I knew he would be like that,”” O’Neill said. “”I can’t explain it to you. Whatever it is, he has it. … I think most of our team is moving in that direction.””

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