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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Life without Lute

    UA interim head coach Kevin ONeill pumps his fists on the sideline in a 64-59 overtime loss to ASU in Tempe on Jan. 9. ONeill has led the Wildcats to a 12-6 record in Lute Olsons absence.
    UA interim head coach Kevin O’Neill pumps his fists on the sideline in a 64-59 overtime loss to ASU in Tempe on Jan. 9. O’Neill has led the Wildcats to a 12-6 record in Lute Olson’s absence.

    Kevin O’Neill often preaches the clichés of taking things one day at a time and always treating each game like it’s the most important one.

    O’Neill lives them out, too, thinking about what he has to do that day to make the Wildcats better when he wakes up rather than looking ahead, even so far as to dinner.

    That’s why it should come as no surprise that a few days after becoming the answer to the biggest question in Tucson sports this decade Dec. 18 – who will take over Lute Olson’s men’s basketball program when he retires – nothing really changed for the coach-in-waiting.

    “”It’s been business as usual, it really has,”” O’Neill said three days after the succession plan was revealed. “”I think there’s just more clarity to the situation. We’ve had different levels of clarity as it’s gone along. So there’s more clarity, and I’m honored that that situation happened.

    “”I’m flattered that our administration, Lute (and athletic director) Jim Livengood would have that confidence. But I’ve really tried to keep my focus and our team’s focus on today’s practice, tomorrow’s shootaround, the next game.””

    When the Wildcats hired O’Neill in May, assistant coach Josh Pastner compared the move to signing a five-star recruit.

    After the job he’s done thus far as interim coach through circumstances unforeseeable, keeping the Wildcats focused despite the uncertainty and rumors surrounding Olson early in the year, Pastner adjusted that assessment, saying O’Neill deserves coach of the year honors nationally and in the Pacific 10 Conference.

    “”After what he’s done with the team and with the kids getting better and better he’s a seven-star recruit,”” Pastner said. “”The guy’s been fantastic. His knowledge of the game is off the charts and I think him being in the NBA has been unbelievable for all the kids because what he’s teaching not only the kids but staff members is off the charts.””

    Pastner, in his sixth year as a coach, called it a “”blessing in disguise”” to have the opportunity to learn under O’Neill, who has spent 11 years as a college head coach and seven in the NBA, including one as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors. During that time he has worked under coaches such as Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Carlisle.

    “”I’m very fortunate to learn under Kevin,”” Pastner said. “”I can’t emphasize how good of a coach he really is, the way he controls timeouts, his strategy, his offensive play calling. He’s an unbelievable defensive coach, but he doesn’t get enough credit for the plays he calls.””

    O’Neill calls NBA-style plays, ordering set plays most times down the court in contrast to Olson’s more free-flowing system.

    “”It’s a completely different system,”” said forward Chase Budinger. “”Coach Olson likes to run up and down, kind of like how Memphis does. Coach O’Neill likes to grind teams out because he’s a very defensive-minded coach. He’s very structured. He wants it his way.””

    O’Neill’s calling card as a former NBA coach excited many players during the preseason, and they have not been disappointed.

    “”He knows his stuff,”” Hill said. “”We all love him, we’re glad he’s here. He’s going to be a good head coach. He’s a good man on and off the court. He’s doing his job, to win games.””

    Guard Jawann McClellan pointed to the positive effect this will have on the world of recruiting, where opposing coaches have pointed to Olson’s age for years as reason not to sign with Arizona.

    “”Now the recruits can know who’s going to be the head coach here and get that out of the way,”” he said. “”Now with him I think the program’s in good hands.””

    When Olson first announced his leave of absence, recruiting director Dave Telep said it happened at a time that had the least effect on recruiting because the commits were all but signed, sealed and delivered, and none of them hesitated before signing their national letters of intent.

    With uncertainty surrounding when Olson would return to his post, Telep said the succession plan is important because going halfway through the year and into the spring recruiting period with uncertainty would be bad as the Wildcats fight to secure future commitments.

    “”To go ahead and get that taken care of gets stability and answers a lot of questions I’m sure a lot of kids had about the program,”” Telep said. “”It’s a big deal.””

    When O’Neill does take over for good it’s uncertain whether Arizona will remain Point Guard U, as Olson excelled at recruiting point guards and highly athletic players that fit his run-and-gun system.

    O’Neill stresses playing suffocating defense more than getting out and running, but Telep said it’s too early to say whether Arizona’s recruiting philosophy will change.

    Still, he said, “”The bar has been set very high. Lute Olson and staff have set the bar of excellence at Arizona that’s tough to meet out there. Expectations of the program are out there, and it is what it is. I’m sure Kevin O’Neill is completely aware of the standards set for him.””

    By making official what has been rumored since the Wildcats hired O’Neill on a $375,000 deal, believed to make him the highest-paid assistant at the time, current players and recruits know who their next coach will be if Olson retires before they use up their eligibility.

    In the meantime, with O’Neill at the helm, the program can begin to see what its future will look like when the day UA sports fans have dreaded for years comes and Olson hangs them up.

    “”I think Kevin’s going to do a great job with this program,”” Pastner said. “”Kevin O’Neill’s an excellent basketball coach, and I think what he’s done with our team has been absolutely fantastic, and I’m just absolutely excited for the future.””

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