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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Adversity keeps Wildcats on toes

    Adversity keeps Wildcats on toes

    The Arizona men’s basketball season saw more twists and turns than a Six Flags Theme Park over the winter break.

    Every day seemed to bring more surprising news off the court, from head coach Lute Olson extending his leave of absence for the entire season and subsequently filing for divorce from his wife of four years, to interim head coach Kevin O’Neill suddenly being named Olson’s successor when he retires.

    After that, guard Laval Lucas-Perry unexpectedly transferred and the injury bug derailed a hot UA squad that didn’t seem to let any outside issues affect the team.

    “”The coaching change was probably the hardest thing because coach Olson has been here for so long and has been a mentor to so many of the guys on the team, as well as me,”” said forward Chase Budinger. “”It was a very tough time.””

    Before the Dec. 8 game at Illinois, the entire UA men’s basketball program seemed to be in limbo concerning what happened next with Olson. He had taken part in six practices and a pre-game shootaround. Rumors swirled that he could return for the game in Chicago.

    But on Dec. 6, the university sent out a press release saying he would miss the remainder of the year.

    “”I do this with great reluctance, because I care greatly about the University of Arizona, the basketball program and the players on this team,”” Olson said in the release. “”But there are personal issues within my family that need to be addressed, and I must devote my full energy to that.””

    UA athletic director Jim Livengood said it would be an “”authorized leave of absence with pay,”” so Olson is earning his full $714,567 annual salary, putting him among the highest paid officials in the Arizona university system.

    Livengood said Olson would be paid just as if he were coaching, meaning he will get any performance bonuses earned by O’Neill and keep his fringe benefits.

    The school’s policy states that employees can use vacation and/or sick days to be paid during a leave of absence, but Livengood did not specify whether that’s the situation with Olson, declining comment because it’s personal.

    Besides extending his leave of absence for the season, Olson also filed for divorce from his wife, Christine, on the night of Dec. 6, with Olson’s lawyer Leonard Karp citing “”irreconcilable differences.””

    Concerning the timing of the two announcements, Karp said, “”It’s all related, and it makes sense.””

    Christine filed a petition for conciliation on Jan. 4, hoping to get back together with him or to reach an “”amicable settlement.”” That amounts to a 60-day cooling-off period to work things out during which time the separation cannot become official.

    “”She’s still in love and very worried about him and would like to have her marriage be a success,”” said Gordon James, Christine’s spokesman.

    That series of events led to the most important news for the future of Arizona basketball: the announcement of O’Neill as Olson’s successor on Dec. 18.

    The decision was a sensible one, due to the way O’Neill coached the Wildcats in Olson’s absence, going 7-2 despite the circumstances, and to stabilize the program for recruiting reasons.

    Not much buildup preceded the news, as the university sent out a press release with the announcement and held an impromptu press conference in the UofA Bookstore to make the change official.

    “”The amazing thing about it is that it’s an absolute win-win,”” Livengood said. “”It’s very good for Kevin, and it’s very good for Wildcat basketball.””

    According to the plan, Olson is expected to return next year, which would move O’Neill back to an assistant position until Olson retires, although that could make for a difficult transition from O’Neill’s coaching style back to Olson’s next year before O’Neill eventually takes over for good.

    This year O’Neill has had to work with a short guard rotation since the freshman Lucas-Perry unexpectedly transferred on Dec. 10 for personal reasons, a decision that miffed O’Neill because the guard will only have two-and-a-half years of eligibility left after he sits out a transfer year, whereas he would have had three years of eligibility if he waited out the season.

    “”Everybody was shocked,”” forward Jordan Hill said of the transfer. “”I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ We’re all sad he’s leaving, he was a good guard, but he said he wasn’t happy, so you’ve just got to respect him. I gave him my number, told him to call me whenever he needs me. We’re still here for him.””

    Then when guard Jerryd Bayless suffered a sprained knee, Arizona had no bench depth to compensate for the injury, going 1-3 while overextending all of its perimeter players.

    “”We’ve been through a lot, but I think that’s what has made this team stronger and has brought us together more,”” Bayless said. “”Things like that will happen and you’ve just got to fight through it. I think we’ve done pretty well with it.””

    Jennings makes McKale debut

    Brandon Jennings gave Arizona fans a sample of what he can do in a high school game played in McKale Center on Dec. 22 and left the crowd wanting more.

    The future Wildcat point guard, ranked as the top player in the class of 2008 by ESPN.com, showed off a feathery shooting touch and lighting speed in a career-high 49-point performance for Oak Hill Academy.

    “”I told them I was going to put on a show, and that’s what I did,”” Jennings said.

    Lance Madden contributed to this report

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