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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    O’Neill can prove worth as head coach

    Michael Schwartz
    Michael Schwartz

    When the UA men’s basketball program hired Kevin O’Neill as an assistant coach and de facto defensive coordinator in early May, rumors immediately swirled that he could be Arizona’s next head coach whenever Lute Olson retires.

    But nobody expected him to take over that title hours before the first exhibition game of the year like he did Sunday, even if just on an interim basis while Olson takes a leave of absence to attend to personal matters.

    While O’Neill sits in the head seat – a position he could hold for days, weeks or months with Olson’s timetable for a return uncertain – this could qualify for an early on-the-job audition.

    Although it felt weird for everybody in McKale Center for the 25-year UA head coach Olson not to be pacing the sidelines Sunday, the players felt comfortable that O’Neill would fill in well because of his wealth of experience.

    That experience amounts to 11 years as a college head coach at three different schools, a year as head coach of the Toronto Raptors and five seasons as an NBA assistant – not to mention three seasons as an Arizona assistant under Olson in the 1980s when the program started its elite run.

    “”We know we can do it with coach O’Neill,”” said guard Jawann McClellan. “”He’s been a head coach at every level. We don’t look at him as an interim head coach.””

    The 50 years of coaching experience Olson possesses will certainly be missed in practice situations, but guard Nic Wise said the team is already used to O’Neill “”running the show”” in practice.

    Olson said that assistants Miles Simon and Josh Pastner are often assigned to a group of players during practice scrimmages, while O’Neill focuses strictly on defense during media day on Oct. 23. Olson involves himself with all areas of the team.

    Although he may now have to focus more on the offensive side of the game as well, O’Neill brings with him a Ph.D. level of knowledge on how to play defense, which Wildcat players have said has made a huge difference in practice.

    However, O’Neill does not boast a winning record as a head coach, having gone 152-165 (.480) as a college head man and 33-49 (.402) with the Raptors. O’Neill’s college squads reached a very un-Olson-like two NCAA Tournaments in his 11 years, and only three of his squads finished more than one game above .500.

    Then again, O’Neill has certainly improved as a coach after six seasons in the pros. With NBA-coaching-level knowledge and recruiting prowess, O’Neill very well might be the best man for the job.

    Although this job interview will help, if O’Neill hopes to one day replace the legend who has twice brought him to Tucson, the results of his defensive reclamation project as an assistant will still hold the most weight.

    But it certainly wouldn’t hurt him to hold the ship steady until the head coach returns.

    Michael Schwartz is a journalism senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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