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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    ‘You’ve been in situations like this before’

    Brandon Jennings mother, Alice Knox, watches an AAU game in Bear Down Gym during the Arizona Cactus Classic on May 10. Knox said her son will easily overcome UAs coaching changes.
    Brandon Jennings’ mother, Alice Knox, watches an AAU game in Bear Down Gym during the Arizona Cactus Classic on May 10. Knox said her son will easily overcome UA’s coaching changes.

    About one year ago, top-notch recruit Brandon Jennings issued a strong verbal commitment immediately following the 2007 Arizona Cactus Classic in McKale Center.

    The high-profile tournament attracted 32 elite AAU teams to the building that hosted a strong tradition, reputation and consistency in its full-time occupancy to the Arizona men’s basketball program.

    But through the most bizarre storylines over the course of just one season, the Wildcats underwent anything but consistency with a year of distress and uncertainty.

    The past year overflowed, overwhelmed and daunted the program hit by substantial changes and concerns throughout the staff. Legendary UA head coach Lute Olson’s season-long leave of absence rocked Tucson, his three assistants – Kevin O’Neill, Miles Simon and Josh Pastner – left the program and four-star recruit Emmanuel Negedu tore up his letter of intent.

    Today, Olson’s return has prompted the concrete to finally begin settling for the 2008-09 season, as the team starts to salvage an identity and rid lingering speculation.

    But throughout the roller coaster, one huge variable remained steady: Jennings.

    The highly anticipated 6-foot guard spent his senior season in high school not only watching the drama unfold, but identifying an unrecognizable tone to the Wildcats.

    ‘He watched them play on TV and he watched the game and said, ‘That is not Arizona basketball out there. Mom, I don’t know what that is out there,'”” said his mother, Alice Knox. “”He was like, ‘Ah man what is going on?'””

    Knox sat in McKale Center for the 2008 Arizona Cactus Classic on May 9-11, watching the same tournament that prompted Jennings to commit one year ago. Enticed by the C.A.T.S academic program on an official visit, Knox and Jennings made another stop to Tucson in December – a month after signing his letter of intent – and fell in love with the atmosphere of Arizona basketball.

    “”I think he was really like, ‘This is it – this is the school right here,'”” Knox said.

    The excitement quickly began to change from enthusiasm to worries, stemmed by a disparaging season that newly hired UA assistant coach Mike Pennell said might not happen in another 30 to 40 years.

    “”Now, I’m a little worried about him coming this year,”” Knox said. “”I know he’s worried because he doesn’t know what to expect. After you get all these guys recruiting you, you become like family.

    “”Hopefully it will work out,”” she added. “”You don’t want to be that kid that transfers. You gotta make sure this is the best situation.””

    Jennings formed a close bond with former UA assistant coach Josh Pastner, who not only recruited but remained in close contact with Jennings and Oak Hill to reassure everything went smooth.

    Pastner left the program officially on May 12 to accept an assistant coach position at Memphis, leaving Jennings with a sense of concern. Soon after, UA assistant coach Miles Simon’s contract wasn’t renewed, emptying the entire coaching staff.

    Even with the coaching shuffle, though, Jennings still came to Arizona for Olson and became somewhat at ease when Olson announced his return for the 2008-09 season, Knox said.

    “”I kept telling Brandon, you can’t listen to what everybody is saying out there,”” Knox said. “”There was a lot of bad stuff coming out.

    “”With the whole Josh (Pastner) and Miles (Simon) thing, he was still a little, ‘I hope it will work out, I’m a little worried,'”” she added.

    Knox has constantly reassured Jennings about the situation he’s played through before. During his tenure at Oak Hill Academy, two of Jennings’ assistant coaches left the program. Before that, his Belmont Shore team lacked a supporting cast of teammates, but Jennings still battled through adversity with the team on his back and “”made it work,”” Knox said.

    “”I said, you just have to go in there and just stay committed to what you committed to,”” she said.

    Even without last season’s superstars like guard Jerryd Bayless, who will enter the 2008 NBA Draft, Knox knows Jennings can prevail with the return of standout forward Chase Budinger.

    Jennings watched last season’s standout freshmen like Bayless, UCLA’s Kevin Love and Memphis’ Derrick Rose make a sudden, prevalent impact.

    From that point onward, he vowed to work hard enough to become the next freshman sensation, Knox said.

    This summer, Jennings will test himself through tough workouts to get his body physically ready for the fall, she said.

    “”He watched them and said ‘I want to have that kind of impact that those guys did,’ “” Knox said. “”He knows what it takes to get there … really work hard, be mentally ready and physically ready to go.””

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