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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    K.O. not to blame

    Michael Schwartz
    Michael Schwartz

    Schwartz on Sports

    It’s easy for fans to blame Kevin O’Neill.

    On the surface, he led the Wildcats to a 19-15 record, a seventh-place finish in the Pacific 10 Conference – the lowest since 1982-83 – and a first-round NCAA Tournament exit all the while breaking the school’s 20-year run of 20-win seasons.

    He implemented an offense relying on set plays and stubbornly played man-to-man defense every possession of the year despite relying on his starters for heavy minutes.

    Comparing this season with the previous 23 years of the program’s winning, run-and-fun history, it’s easy why many people can’t wait for O’Neill to make his way out of town, which could be the likely conclusion to this story.

    But things aren’t so simple. O’Neill was thrown into a situation with what he called “”a lot of moving parts,”” going from lead assistant and defensive savior to interim head coach.

    He didn’t get preseason practices to teach his system to players he didn’t recruit. He inherited a depth-starved roster that collapsed during injuries to guards Jerryd Bayless and Nic Wise, going 2-5 in their absence, yet still extended the program’s proud NCAA Tournament streak to 24 straight years.

    “”I can honestly say I think I did the best job I could under the circumstances,”” O’Neill said. “”I believe that if we wouldn’t have had major, major injuries we would have won more games, but if cows had puppies there’d be a milk shortage, so that’s the way it goes.””

    Although his head has been called for, those close to the job applaud how O’Neill handled the season.

    UA athletic director Jim Livengood said, “”He’s been given a very difficult situation and done an excellent job going through what was really a tough season.””

    UA assistant coach Josh Pastner said, “”I thought Kevin did a very good job. He’s a very, very, very good basketball coach, and he kept the (NCAA Tournament) streak alive at 24.””

    UA senior guard Jawann McClellan said, “”People don’t realize K.O. was put in a tough spot from (the) jump off, and fans need to realize what a good job he’s done. I think people need to give credit to K.O., too.””

    In hindsight, O’Neill had no regrets concerning the way he coached despite the difficulties involved with changing how things were done at Arizona.

    “”I coached the way that I knew how to win,”” O’Neill said. “”I don’t think anybody could coach anybody else’s style. … You’ve got to coach what you’re comfortable with.

    “”I realize that was a big change for the players in some respects, but when I looked at our team I thought the style we played gave us the best chance to win, and that’s why I did it and that’s why I’d do it all over again with the personnel we had,”” O’Neill added.

    It could be tough on the players who learned O’Neill’s system to go back to playing Olson’s way, but it shouldn’t be nearly so hard as the first switch because many players favor Olson’s style. It’s what they were recruited for and they’ll have the whole summer to get reacquainted with it.

    On the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats ranked No. 6 in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, allowing 66.9 points per game.

    Although it’s in large part due to playing a slower style, Arizona has only once given up fewer points than that once since the 1988 Final Four team on which O’Neill was an assistant. The other squad was the 2001 team that gave up 66.3 points per game and lost in the championship game.

    Anybody who watched the Wildcats this year knows their defense could not be considered close to those squads’ defenses, an assessment O’Neill agrees with.

    “”I thought we were average,”” he said, noting the team “”had some real good stretches defensively”” at times.

    O’Neill would have liked the defense to allow 42 percent field-goal shooting or less, but it gave up 44.1 percent shooting.

    Still, he takes pride in knowing his players learned how to play man-to-man defense, something he said they will benefit from in future years at Arizona and those talented enough to reach the NBA won’t be surprised by any terminology thrown their way.

    It’s sure been a bumpy ride and not all the numbers look pretty, but with what all the players learned on the court and off it, the UA program should be grateful for the job O’Neill did this past season.

    Michael Schwartz is a journalism senior. He can be reached at

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