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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Not so soft

    Opinion: Inside UA Basketball

    MIAMI – Two years ago, after the No. 9 seed Arizona men’s basketball team lost to No. 8 seed Purdue in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament, former UA head coach Lute Olson had had enough.

    Enough of the mediocrity, enough of the lackluster defense and enough of his team’s reputation for playing “”soft.””

    Just as many anticipated, the Boilermakers were simply too physical and too powerful for the anything-but-tough Wildcats, who boasted talent without heart.

    Between standout sophomore Marcus Williams, senior leader Mustafa Shakur and Pacific 10 Conference Freshman of the Year Chase Budinger, no one could bridge the gap between raw talent and success.

    The bridge was toughness.

    Olson pushed longtime UA associate head coach Jim Rosborough off his immediate staff and hired Kevin O’Neill as the team’s new de facto defensive coordinator.

    O’Neill would serve as the guy who reshaped Arizona’s defensive mentality and attempt to wipe away the “”soft”” reputation.

    In the 2006 season opener, the Wildcats were out-fought by Virginia, losing 93-90 in a game the UA led by as many as 19 points.

    Sound familiar, like something UA fans have come to anticipate and cope with over the past two seasons?

    After the game, UVA guard Sean Singletary added to the humiliation of the defeat.

    “”We knew that we would come back and beat them,”” Singletary said. “”We knew from the start that they weren’t tough and wouldn’t fight.””

    Then one year later, on the eve of a rematch with Virginia, UA forward Bret Brielmaier acknowledged the flaw, too.

    Arizona lost again to Virginia, 75-72, in McKale Center after Singletary lit up the Wildcats for 24 points.

    “”For the most part it’s been true the last couple years, we have been a soft team,”” Brielmaier said. “”We haven’t been, a lot of times, the aggressors, so we need to go out there and change that.””

    Arizona finished its 2007-08 campaign 19-15 overall, limping into the NCAA Tournament to suffer another first-round exit, this time to No. 7 seed West Virginia.

    O’Neill’s reign on paper looked much the same. The season still ended in an unfavorable, underachieving manner based on the team’s highly-touted talent.

    Turns out, O’Neill’s hard-nosed, no-bullshit demeanor wasn’t what motivated the team. His potty mouth didn’t help build the positive chemistry that these players needed after experiencing the loss of a Hall-of-Fame head coach.

    One year after Arizona perceivably took another step back in its quest to reemerge as an elite program, the Wildcats may have struck the right personnel with this season’s tournament run to the Sweet 16.

    Or at least, the right tactics to toughen up Arizona basketball and see results.

    Were O’Neill’s harsh tactics too tough for a group of young athletes who lost their Hall-of-Fame head coach? Or were these Wildcats simply incapable of bringing the intensity and work ethic to move raw talent into the win column?

    Judging by the job that current UA interim head coach Russ Pennell and his staff have done, it’s all in the approach.

    The Wildcats play overall No. 1 seed Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

    “”You gotta understand that the players have been through a tough situation, so they didn’t need to see a (new) staff that was … abusive or frustrated by their results,”” said associate head coach Mike Dunlap. “”So what we tried to do was have a lot of energy with them and enjoy it.””

    This group was probably always capable of playing hard. They just needed motivation delivered in a different manner.

    Positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement. It’s simple psychology.

    These Wildcats thrive on chemistry. Those Wildcats crumbled on chemistry. And it begins with Pennell, the man in charge, who speaks more like a father figure than a basketball coach.

    “”The true joy of right now is being around these guys and the feeling of what we’ve accomplished together,”” Pennell said.

    Added senior David Bagga: “”The thing about Coach Pennell, he’s such a great motivator. He gets everyone fired up to play.””

    As national reporters invaded Arizona’s locker room in Miami to resurface the whole Olson-O’Neill drama from last season, the same questions that nobody could answer four months ago are no more.

    How much different is current UA interim head coach Russ Pennell from O’Neill?

    “”One hundred percent,”” UA senior Fendi Onobun said without hesitation.

    Sitting next to Onobun in the high-spirited locker room after Arizona’s first-round win over Utah, Arizona forward Jamelle Horne chuckled at the obvious answer to those questions.

    “”This is the best year, man. Hands down, this is definitely the best year,”” Onobun said after the UA beat Cleveland State to advance to the Sweet 16.

    With the Wildcats’ deep run into the NCAA Tournament, it’s easier to reflect on last season’s struggles. Many of their responses begin with lines like: “”we’ve been through so much,”” or “”just how far we’ve come over the past couple of years.””

    Clearly, this team struggled under the scrutiny that O’Neill’s negative vibes brought as an assistant-turned-interim head coach, running the program his-way-or-the-highway.

    All throughout this season, the behind-the-scenes drama and bad chemistry was a taboo that the team is finally beginning to talk about now that the Wildcats are in their first Sweet 16 since 2005.

    Pennell is a complete 180 degrees from O’Neill. It’s all about a positive outlook, cliché pep talks and fundamentally caring for his players and coaching staff.

    “”Especially this year, this is the closest group of guys I’ve ever been a part of. Just the closest that we have. You can’t put that into words,”” Bagga said after the Cleveland State win.

    It’s a team that now thrives on its aggressive defense, exactly what O’Neill wanted, implementing complex traps to force turnovers and control tempo.

    It’s a team that gets hyped off Kyle Fogg’s quick steals and awareness on the defensive end.

    These Wildcats aren’t enduring their “”soft”” reputation back on their heels.

    They’re attacking it the way Olson wanted all along.

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

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