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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Roy: The 9 biggest hoops stories to watch in ’09

    UA interim head coach Russ Pennell has given the Wildcats a solid 8-3 start this season. But what will 2009 entail for the program?
    UA interim head coach Russ Pennell has given the Wildcats a solid 8-3 start this season. But what will 2009 entail for the program?

    Basketball Commentary

    The calendar year can be viewed from many angles in Tucson’s college basketball realm.

    Conceiving the season as a whole, the Arizona men’s basketball team (8-3) already touts two resume-defining triumphs and blunders under its belt. Quality wins over then-No. 4 Gonzaga and Kansas, with one-point heart-breaking losses to Alabama-Birmingham and Texas A&M can certainly factor into postseason differences between the NIT and NCAA Tournaments come March.

    But in terms of a timeline, the Wildcats immediately enter another new chapter of their 2008-09 campaign with the start of the new year.

    Beginning Jan. 2, Pacific 10 Conference play welcomes Arizona with a trip to the Bay Area schools over its first weekend.

    It may not be a clean slate like a fresh calendar, but Pac-10 opposition can certainly serve as a better benchmark than, say, teams like Weber State (which the Wildcats play Monday in McKale Center to conclude 2008).

    Beyond just the conclusion of this season, 2009 promises answer Tucson’s most anxiously awaited secret.

    Here’s what to look out for in the next four months:

    9. Kyle Fogg: A bizarre 2008 served as the most unpredictable in UA’s hardwood history. But if one positive came from the Made-for-TV McKale Center soap opera, it’s certainly the hidden gem in freshman guard Kyle Fogg.

    An all-around smart player, the Brea, Calif., native shows promising signs of becoming not only fan-favorite, but a solid example. Fogg has played tenacious defense and evolved from a role player to an already-established starter, simply by listening to coach’s orders.

    Although he’s hardly reached double digits in scoring, Fogg has shown immense maturity and made smart decisions offensively – rarely forcing bad shots or playing out of tempo. It’s no surprise that he currently heads the team in field goal percentage (61.3), based on his natural awareness on the court.

    Did I mention he’s a freshman?

    8. Pennell’s rotations: UA forward Jamelle Horne emerged in Sunday’s 84-68 blowout win against Kansas with 19 points, 13 rebounds — both career highs — and an explanation-point dunk to end the game.

    As a wing with length and height, an oversized Horne can serve as a multi-dimensional player with his ability to rebound and shoot.

    But up until that point, Horne has shown similar inconsistencies the sophomore suffered from last season.

    Sunday’s game marked the first of the season in which Horne didn’t start. As UA interim head coach Russ Pennell said before, some players just play better coming off the bench.

    The move gave UA forward Zane Johnson a chance to start, although he only took two shots the entire game.

    Johnson, recruited for his pure shooting ability and often times called the Wildcats’ best shooter, has yet to find his niche, too.

    Both Horne and Johnson will become a major factor in this year’s success. So the question remains in finding a common ground: Can Pennell find a method or tweak the lineup to best suit both Horne and Johnson?

    7. Avoiding crisis mode: Speaking of Pennell, it was one year ago around this time that the 2007-08 team began its spiraling downfall. After this year’s win over then-No. 4 Gonzaga, UA forward Jordan Hill said overconfidence plagued last year’s squad, beginning after the dramatic upset of then-No. 9 Texas A&M early in the season.

    Whatever it was, the Wildcats clearly suffered from a chemistry issue with hard-nosed former UA interim head coach Kevin O’Neill. It’s silly to draw comparisons between O’Neill and Pennell, yet still inevitable simply based on their interim status.

    One positive sign so far: Every player arrived on time to their first practice back from Christmas break.

    6. The underdog role: So far this season, the Wildcats have relished the rare opportunity of playing in the underdog role.

    After previously spending the recent couple seasons underachieving and struggling to meet expectations, players have repeatedly said that lower expectations motivates them.

    This was the first time the Wildcats began a season outside the top-25 rankings since the 2001-02 campaign, and just the second instance since 1987.

    5. Pac-10 prevalence: Just think: Exactly one year ago, the Pac-10 stood atop of the college basketball world with its powerhouse UCLA, top-10 Washington State, star-power USC, not-too-shabby Oregon and up-and-coming ASU. It’s tough to remember a time that Arizona fell that far behind in its conference, but the program trying-to-save-face survived the NCAA tournament bubble and rounded off an impressive year of Pac-10 hoops.

    Freshmen Jrue Holiday of No. 13 UCLA and Demar DeRozan of USC were expected to emerge as this year’s power freshmen, yet the talent pool remains far weaker than last season’s stellar class of Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless.

    Although favored to win the Pac-10 in preseason polls and rankings, UCLA’s lack of inside presence remains the Bruins’ weakest point so far this season. With losses to No. 24 Michigan and No. 9 Texas, the Bruins have yet to prove themselves on a national scale.

    And beyond that, it’s wide open. No. 20 ASU (9-1) is the only other ranked team, but a lack of quality opponents has (once again) been the Sun Devils’ big criticism so far. A one-point overtime win over IUPUI and escape artist-type one-point win over BYU doesn’t exact sell ASU as a legitimate threat, despite the emergence of James Harden (23.7 points per game so far).

    ESPN.com’s headline accurately sums up the Pac-10’s outlook: “”It’s still UCLA’s title to lose.””

    4. Recruiting landscape: Given today’s roster, and the assuming that Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill declare for the 2009 NBA Draft, the Wildcats aren’t in Indiana-esque disastrous shape for the 2009-10 season, despite not having one high school recruit.

    (Nic Wise, point guard; Kyle Fogg, guard; Zane Johnson, wing; Jamelle Horne, wing; Alex Jacobson, center. That’s a starting lineup looking better and better after every game as this season progresses.)

    Now add this to the equation: With the arrival of a new head coach, will UA receive any transfers or late additions to its vacant ’09 class? UA assistant coach Reggie Geary has actively recruited throughout the whole Lute Olson retirement saga, despite the long-term security of a head coach.

    It’s difficult to sell any program to any high school athlete without knowing what the future entails. But with a strong reputation and Olson’s legacy, the program’s past success has been used to sell itself.

    And what high school baller doesn’t want to be cool like Gilbert Arenas?

    3. The NBA Draft: Jordan Hill is quickly becoming a household name in college basketball on a national scale. The freakishly athletic forward is averaging a team-leading 18.9 points and 11.8 rebounds per game with 30 total blocks.

    Add on a newly improved left-hand hook shot and mid-range jumper, and Hill has quickly become the Wildcats’ most dynamic player.

    UNLV double- and triple-teamed Hill, as he’s already earned respect as one of the nation’s top big men behind Oklahoma’s Blake Griffen, the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Draft based on NBADraft.net.

    In that same mock draft, Hill is projected to be selected fifth and Chase Budinger at 12th. Of course, those early predictions entirely based on upside will certainly fluctuate throughout the season, all the way up until draft day – just like it did for Bayless.

    After Budinger spent last summer testing the NBA waters, will this be the year he’s gone for good?

    2. “”The Streak””: There isn’t another program more consistent than Arizona over the past quarter century. With 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the Wildcats are – once again – on the brink of preserving the program’s most coveted statistic.

    Now, it’s Pennell’s turn to keep the program in line for No. 25. The key will be health and production from the Big Three (Hill, Wise and Budinger) along with one or two supporting variables (Fogg, Horne, Johnson).

    1. Drum roll please — Your next coach: Certainly, Tucson’s biggest story in 2009 will come from whoever takes over program in a monumental, program-defining new face.

    At this point, it’s impossible to determine who has interest and who doesn’t, since no coach wants to publicly defy their own program mid season.

    Hiring a basketball coach isn’t rocket science. (Then again, if it was, the UA would also have an advantage having already landed the a Mission to Mars.)

    Does UA athletic director Jim Livengood go after an up-and-coming protege like Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Gonzaga’s Mark Few?

    Or can the school itself leach off its reputation and attract an already-established elite coach like Memphis’ John Calipari and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo?

    Either way, the checkbook and boosters must also subsequently rise to the occasion, too, despite a less-than-favorable economy.

    – Bryan Roy, assistant sports editor, is a journalism sophomore. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu

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