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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Toughening up Arizona basketball

    The simple terms Kevin O’Neill uses to describe his defense make him sound like your average middle school basketball coach.

    Man-to-man defense, no easy baskets, take away the open 3s and make the opposition shoot contested 2s.

    But the Wildcats are not paying O’Neill $375,000 this year – believed to be the highest assistant salary in college basketball – for such simple strategy.

    O’Neill, filling in as interim head coach while head coach Lute Olson takes a leave of absence, brings with him an NBA-level of defensive knowledge and an in-your-face attitude designed to toughen an Arizona squad dogged for being soft in years past.

    “”It’s five times, 10 times more intense than it was last year,”” said forward Bret Brielmaier. “”This year, it’s all about team mentality. Everyone works as a team and flows as a unit, instead of individual people going out and stopping their individual guy. Everyone’s accountable this year for their man, their job.

    “”I think everyone this year who’s watched any Arizona basketball is seeing definitely a different mentality on defense.””

    The defense

    O’Neill said there’s no magic to his defense, a help-oriented system that relies on players to be in position to make plays. He has drilled the Wildcats in this philosophy throughout practice, sometimes spending an entire session without anybody touching a ball.

    “”It’s just a lot of heart and toughness that has to do with it,”” said guard Jawann McClellan. “”We haven’t been tough the last couple years, and that’s where our defense starts. You’ve got to want to play ‘D.’ “”

    McClellan called O’Neill a “”defensive genius”” for the schemes he has brought.

    “”He has a lot of

    With the addition of assistant coach Kevin O’Neill as de facto defensive coordinator, the Wildcats hope to shore up their defense and in doing so advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in five years.

    Scoring defense – 72.5 points per game allowed (No. 9 Pac-10)
    NCAA Tournament Finish – First round

    Scoring defense – 68.7 ppg (No. 7 Pac-10)
    NCAA Tournament Finish – Second round

    Scoring defense – 69.7 ppg (No. 3 Pac-10)
    NCAA Tournament Finish – Elite Eight

    Scoring defense – 78.5 ppg No. 8 Pac-10)
    NCAA Tournament Finish – First round

    knowledge of the game, far above my head right now,”” added forward Chase Budinger. “”He just knows spots on the floor, rotations, so many things that he’s trying to teach us right now to get that mentality of just getting good on defense.””

    After utilizing both a man-to-man defense and a zone last year, the Wildcats have switched to a straight man-to-man the de facto defensive coordinator O’Neill prefers.

    Although players will provide help, McClellan said it all comes down to the pride involved with stopping your man in that type of defense.

    But players don’t always have to shoulder the load themselves.

    “”(O’Neill’s) really thought out every scenario of anything that could happen to us,”” said center Kirk Walters. “”So just having that is really going to help us out in preparation for games and in games in general.””

    The changes

    Budinger needed just one word to describe the mood in practice: toughness.

    The Wildcats have earned a reputation as being soft the last few years, but Budinger does not expect that to be the case when O’Neill gets done with the squad.

    “”He’s just trying to get us tough right now,”” Budinger said. “”We don’t want that (reputation) on our backs saying that we’re soft, so we’re trying to change that right now.

    “”We’re going to be a defensive team this year.””

    O’Neill’s yelling in practice spares nobody, not even the preseason All-American Budinger, who struggled with defense and toughness at times last season.

    “”He does it with everybody,”” Budinger said. “”He’s just trying to push everybody to be their best, and I think that’s really helped me personally because I’m trying to focus on the defensive end, and I really think I’m getting better at the defensive end.””

    O’Neill’s punishment of choice would make any college student cringe: early morning runs, which the coach himself often takes part in.

    Forward Jordan Hill said he’d been punished with a few of these runs, which normally start around 3 a.m.

    “”He’ll get after you if you’re not working hard. He’ll get after you if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,”” Walters said. “”But if he sees that you’re going as hard as you can, what more can you ask for?””

    The return

    The early progress O’Neill has made in the Wildcats’ defense and mentality explains why the program hired him in early May, making the controversial move to re-assign 18-year UA assistant coach Jim Rosborough in the process.

    Olson said a head coach needs to make sure he has the right ingredients on his staff, a staff he felt was missing a kick of O’Neill, his assistant during the early years of his program’s history from 1986-1989.

    “”We just felt that the defense needed to be shored up, and I’m at the stage where I need to have somebody on that other end that I know, and I know Kevin,”” said Olson, who handed over the reins of the defense to O’Neill during practice before taking his leave.

    Having spent the past seven years in the NBA, O’Neill said it’s been a bit of an adjustment returning to the college game, where he went 152-165 (.480 winning percentage) in his previous 11 seasons as a head coach.

    “”They’re both played on the same board, but they’re like checkers and chess, two different games,”” O’Neill said.

    The result?

    Last year at this time, the Wildcats talked about how great their chemistry was – it was supposedly the missing element from the previous year’s team. But that theory soon went up into smoke before Arizona crashed and burned in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against a less-talented Purdue squad.

    And after a pair of exhibition games in which the Wildcats looked anything but sharp, nobody’s anointing O’Neill the savior quite yet.

    “”We’re a long ways away from being a good defensive team,”” O’Neill said. “”We’re a team that is in the beginning stages of learning how to play defense and how to play hard all the time on defense. With time, I hope that we’ll get better at both those things.””

    The day before Arizona’s season opener, O’Neill estimated the Wildcats play with high-level intensity 70-75 percent of the time.

    If Arizona ends up playing hard every possession of every game and practice by March with O’Neill’s influence, Olson may have just reinvigorated an elite program that had started to show cracks.

    “”It’s been a real positive thing,”” Brielmaier said. “”(O’Neill’s) brought a different mentality to the program. He’s made sure everyone’s real accountable and a defense that I think we’ve really been lacking.

    “”So, hopefully, what he’s brought will make a difference.””

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