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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Opener brings loads of changes

    UA forward Jamelle Horne dunks the ball during the Wildcats 96-73 exhibition win over Team Georgia on Thursday in McKale Center. Horne, a freshman, will start for Arizona tonight against NAU.
    UA forward Jamelle Horne dunks the ball during the Wildcats’ 96-73 exhibition win over Team Georgia on Thursday in McKale Center. Horne, a freshman, will start for Arizona tonight against NAU.

    This time last year, when Kevin O’Neill was working as a consultant for the Indiana Pacers, he would have thought anybody who told him that a year later he would be leading the UA men’s basketball team to start its season had to be under influence of a pretty potent substance.

    “”I would have had them drug-tested immediately, and then asked them where they got those drugs. Sounds like they’re pretty good,”” O’Neill said. “”I would have bet anybody that that would not have been the case.””

    After being hired as an Arizona assistant in May and promoted to the head job on an interim basis while UA head coach Lute Olson takes a leave of absence, that’s exactly where O’Neill finds himself entering No. 17 Arizona’s season opener against NAU (1-0) tonight at 7:30 in McKale Center.

    The opener represents a long time coming for the player O’Neill will start at point guard, freshman Jerryd Bayless, a Phoenix native who has been recruited by the Wildcats since his freshman year in high school.

    I’m definitely excited for it,”” Bayless said. “”I’m looking forward to (today), and then we’ve got Virginia on Saturday. I’m not trying to look ahead, we’re just trying to focus on (today) and hope we pull out a win there.””

    Just by mentioning Saturday’s revenge game against the Cavaliers, Arizona’s only loss before New Year’s Day last season, shows how easy it could be for a player to look past an NAU squad that the Wildcats have beaten 23 straight times.

    That could be cause for concern, as O’Neill said sometimes players don’t listen to coach-speak about not looking past any opponent.

    “”You can say whatever you want, sometimes players don’t react like mature players. They look like immature players, and when you do look past somebody, that’s when you lose,”” he said. “”If guys choose to overlook an opponent, they’re making a mistake. Big time.””

    O’Neill needs to look no further than then-No. 18 USC’s 15-point loss to Mercer and then-No. 20 Kentucky’s 16-point loss to Gardner-Webb last week as proof that nobody’s safe from the upset bug in college basketball.

    “”If they’re wearing short pants and tank tops, they can beat you,”” O’Neill said. “”That’s the way this

    game goes.””

    If Thursday’s exhibition game against Team Georgia is any indication, O’Neill seems to like guards Nic Wise and Daniel Dillon and forward Bret Brielmaier off the bench behind starters Bayless, guard Jawann McClellan and forwards Chase Budinger, Jamelle Horne and Jordan Hill.

    Besides those three aforementioned reserves, no backup played more than six minutes. Things could be complicated at center if Hill gets into foul trouble – like he did by picking up two fouls in two minutes Thursday – as the team would rely on a committee of reserves at that spot.

    “”I plan on getting to a settled rotation sooner than later because I think that’s important,”” O’Neill said.

    McClellan said the squad is ready for the season to start despite a pair of lackluster exhibition performances, adding that the young UA squad and a coaching staff missing Olson makes for a situation where everybody’s learning together.

    “”We know NAU’s going to come in here and try to beat us,”” he said. “”We’ve got to realize that we have ‘Arizona’ across our chest. Everybody wants to beat us, they want to catch us while we’re down, so we have to come and just try to jump on people from the start.””

    To ensure that happens, McClellan and the Wildcats will rely on the contributions of the freshmen, whom he said would have games where they look great and others where they look like freshmen.

    Both situations occurred in the exhibition season for Bayless and Horne, who got a feel for the college environment against Concordia and Team Georgia.

    “”I learned that (we) know how to play college basketball,”” Horne said. “”I’m new to this. There’s a different speed, different intensity, so I think I have to get a lot tougher, as well.””

    Knowing that any young squad like Arizona’s won’t mesh in November, O’Neill said his team has a long way to go but much room to improve because of its youth.

    “”We have a lot of things we need to work on,”” O’Neill said, “”and our guys are going to have to put themselves in a position where it’s daily improvement throughout the season because that’s how you get to where you want to go, and that’s what we’re going to have to do.””

    And 1

    Forward Fendi Onobun (shin splints) has been ruled out of tonight’s game. Forward Zane Johnson (concussion) took part in a full-contact practice yesterday and could be available if the Wildcats need him.

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