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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Budinger: ‘We think we can win the Pac-10’

    UA forward Jordan Hill, right, greets freshman guard Brendon Lavender during warmups before Mondays game against Weber State, which Arizona won 71-65 in McKale Center. Hill didnt play in the game because of a lower leg injury, but his health has been improving with Pacific 10 Conference play starting Friday at California.
    UA forward Jordan Hill, right, greets freshman guard Brendon Lavender during warmups before Monday’s game against Weber State, which Arizona won 71-65 in McKale Center. Hill didn’t play in the game because of a lower leg injury, but his health has been improving with Pacific 10 Conference play starting Friday at California.

    Basketball Notes

    Since the beginning of the season, when the Arizona men’s basketball team lost its head coach, Lute Olson, to retirement and a promising freshman center, Jeff Withey, to a lack of commitment, the perception and exceptions nationwide began to plummet.

    Verbal commits signed elsewhere and fans didn’t show up to McKale. But through the muck, the players and coaches always remained positive. And coming off a 9-3 start with Pacific 10 Conference play looming, the glass seems even more than half full.

    “”We think we can win the Pac-10,”” said UA forward Chase Budinger. “”The main thing is we don’t listen to outside people. We don’t listen to people like you guys – we don’t listen to the media.

    “”We just focus on our team,”” Budinger added. “”We know what we have, and we know what we need to do. We need to focus on one game at a time. Our next game is against Cal, and that’s all we’re focusing on. We know that (our) Pac-10 schedule is a tough schedule, but we’re just taking it one day at a time, one week at a time.””

    As cliché as it sounds, Budinger speaks the truth. Is there really anything else a player can do when fans leave empty seats in an arena with as much tradition and prestige as Arizona?

    “”I always knew we had a good team coming into this year,”” Budinger said. “”Even when Coach O’s retirement happened, a lot of people were doubting us, but I still knew we had a very strong team, a very solid team.””

    For UA interim head coach Russ Pennell, believing the Wildcats can win the conference title is the only way to approach the rest of the season. With the Pac-10 losing many players to the NBA from last season, the conference has been dubbed as a weaker as a whole, something Pennell has noticed as well.

    “”Unlike other years, I don’t think there’s a real dominant team (in the Pac-10),”” Pennell said. “”I still think UCLA’s really good. … But I don’t think the gap between UCLA and everyone else is as big as it has been in the past.””

    Bracketologists and prognosticators have decided Arizona most certainly has to go at least 10-8 in conference play, assuming the Wildcats beat Houston in their final nonconference game, in order to reach the 20-win plateau and make the NCAA Tournament for the 25th straight year.

    But those aren’t numbers Pennell looks at.

    “”I think it’s more on positioning in the league, to be honest with you, if you can finish in the top three, top four,”” Pennell said. “”The Pac-10’s taking a hit this year, as far as the image. I personally think it’s going to be just as good by the time the year’s over.

    “”… You’re trying to win the conference, but you’re definitely trying to get in that top three or four,”” the coach added. “”Then you’ve probably, according to history, got a shot at making it.””

    As for naysayers who don’t believe Arizona will make it to the Dance, forward Jamelle Horne just brushes them off.

    “”Everyone in the locker room is serious about this Pac-10 season, because there’s a lot of doubters, and there have been since the beginning of the season,”” Horne said. “”We’re playing hard, and we’re playing with a lot more energy. Arizona’s back.””

    Hill becoming healthier

    Arizona’s big man Jordan Hill has been making positive steps to recovering from a lower leg injury.

    Literally.

    The junior didn’t practice with the team on Wednesday, but he was shuffling, shooting, and running lightly on the sidelines without any contact, Pennell said.

    “”He’s getting close,”” Pennell said. “”He was moving pretty good (Wednesday).””

    Pennell couldn’t say whether Hill would be ready to play against California on Friday.

    “”I can’t speak for our medical staff, but I’m just looking with my eyes: He’s moving pretty good.””

    Added Horne: “”He looked great. He was bouncing around. He looked like he was coming back off his injury. He’ll be fine.””

    Hill suffered a lower muscle strain in his left leg during practice on Saturday and didn’t play against Weber State on Monday night. Because of his absence on the court, Pennell played a smaller lineup at times, with Horne, 6-foot-6, and Budinger, 6-foot-7, being the tallest players in certain instances.

    “”I was the 5 (center) at one point,”” Horne said with a smile.

    “”So was I,”” Budinger added.

    “”I wasn’t ready for that,”” Horne said.

    Horne stepping up

    In Hill’s absence, Horne scored 14 points and pulled down eight rebounds in 29 minutes Monday night. This comes a game after he scored 19 points and had 13 boards, both career bests, against Kansas off the bench.

    But Horne said he hasn’t really changed anything about himself since the beginning of the season.

    “”I’m probably just playing a little harder and getting into better game shape as the season goes on,”” Horne said. “”I’m just going to say whatever the game’s been giving me, I’ve been taking it.””

    Horne’s improved production over the past few games has helped Budinger, who has shot 4-for-23 over the past two games.

    “”He’s going to the offensive glass, and is able to get tip-ins,”” Budinger said. “”I feel last game every time I shot the ball and I missed, he was there to tip it in, and that’s what we need from him. He’s been playing tremendously well and he just needs to continue to do that.””

    Pennell said he’d like to see Horne expand on his consistency, intensity, rebounding and his ability to lock down defenders with his length on defense. When the sophomore does that, he is able to lead his team like Budinger, Hill and guard Nic Wise do.

    “”Everyone always talks about the Big Three; I was hoping by the end of the season we’d have the Big Four,”” Pennell said. “”And I think he’s certainly a candidate for that.””

    Happy New Year

    The Wildcats will hold an 8 a.m. practice on New Years Day before heading out to the Bay Area. Because of this, players won’t be doing anything extreme when the ball drops to celebrate the beginning of 2009.

    “”I’m going to bed at 7 tonight,”” Budinger said.

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